Stephen Dorff

Blade (1998, Stephen Norrington)

Back when the movie came out—on DVD, anyway—I tried watching Blade 1 a couple times. The first time I turned it off before I was twenty minutes in, which used to be a soft rule (give the movie twenty minutes, depending on runtime); I think I gave it until Stephen Dorff showed up, then had to stop. Stopping when you see Stephen Dorff is always a reasonable action. The second time I with a friend (because a Blade buddy might help me get through it?); we put it on, I promptly passed out. The funny thing about the latter attempt was I passed out before I had stopped it, though I think I woke up for some of the end… but maybe not. I didn’t know Blade had a bad Raiders of the Lost Ark rip for an ending.

The first failed attempt was during the controversial—amongst my film enthusiast friends—“you don’t stop a movie if you start it” period of nineties film snobbery. That period overlaps, possibly entirely, with the “sit through the end credits to show respect for the crew” period of nineties film snobbery. These periods weren’t me solo, in fact I picked up at least the latter from my film snob peers. The former seemed like common sense, but is, of course, the anthesis of common sense. The second failed Blade attempt—I mean, I was also blasted—was during in a different period; “why bother watching if you’re not learning anything from it.” That period didn’t just cover film, it was for all media ingestion. Why read a novel if it’s not going to teach you (specifically) anything applicable for your writing craft. That third period went the longest, well into when I started blogging about film here on “The Stop Button.” While I see that third period as an organic result of the first two, along with some seasoning from academe, my film snob pals never went for it. Somehow it was too far a leap.

And I’ve also given it the boot, slowly over time, as I discovered how I wanted to write about movies.

In some cases, it’s spending three hundred words talking about not watching the movie. And Blade is the perfect subject matter for that approach. Because Blade is not a good movie. I toyed with the idea, after all these years, of how crazy it would be to give Blade a star. But anything good about it is incidental. Director Norrington just couldn’t manage to make it terrible because he was distracted screwing something else up. The film also has a stunningly bad script from David S. Goyer. Between the godawful exposition (Kris Kristofferson gets a lot of it and can’t do any of it) and the quizzical plotting—when the Raiders of the Lost Ark thing takes over in the second half, along with the big second act surprise, Blade feels like a very different film. Sort of. It’s still ugly in all the ill-advised ways Norrington employs, like the harsh, high often contrast lighting (courtesy Theo van de Sande, who either’s responsible or not but I wouldn’t want to track his career either way) or the crappy CG. Blade is ostensibly super-gritty but only when it’s Wesley Snipes. The nineties emo vampire stuff is never super-gritty. Norrington’s understanding of super-gritty is occasional shaky cam and inept head room and letting editor Paul Rubell chop whole seconds of action out to make it seem speedy. Every once in a while, there will be a sequence—like Snipes with his samurai sword taking out an endless stream of vampires dressed like they’re Joker thugs from Batman ’89—and you can see exactly how Norrington could’ve done it well. Because pretty soon it would be done well. Blade anticipates the visual tone of future films but none of the future style or technical ingenuity. Because Norrington sucks.

Someone also got the idea to have Mark Isham score it like John Williams, which doesn’t make sense until the end when it’s Raiders; for a while the movie pretends it’s Terminator 2—Snipes and partner Kristofferson hanging out with on-the-run-from-the-vampires hematologist N'Bushe Wright in their clubhouse; those scenes are really weird with the Isham score. Goyer’s script isn’t derivative and is bad. Norrington’s direction isn’t ever not derivative and is bad. It’s incredibly interesting how the two collide.

Stuck in the middle are Snipes and Wright. Blade can’t help but give Wright a great role and Goyer and Norrington can’t help but try to destroy it. Norrington’s got some… toxic masculinity issues. Or maybe just rape culture ones. It’s a couple things, with Wright being on the receiving end later (courtesy “no way” ex-boyfriend Tim Guinee), but the first one is Norrington’s onscreen director title card. It’s a gross “really, dude?”

Wright comes out very sympathetic, but she’s a lot better at the urban vampire action than the pseudo-Raiders thing. Some of the problem with the Raiders thing is Norrington’s bad visual storytelling, some of it is Goyer not giving Wright enough to do; if any of it’s Wright’s fault, you basically can’t tell. Goyer and Norrington give their separate badnesses 110%. You can barely make-out the acting through it.

Well, except with Dorff, who’s hilariously bad, Donal Logue, who’s hilariously bad, Udo Kier, who’s hilariously bad but also very obviously just playing a caricature and not trying… every once in a while, you get the feeling Blade could’ve been a lot better if it just let itself camp out on the shitty vampires. Wesley Snipes killing a bunch of silly, shitty white vampires would be a fun movie. Especially if Norrington had long enough shots of Snipes kicking ass. Snipes gives his physical performance his all in Blade and Norrington picks up about twenty percent of it. Other times the camera will be focused on a pillar instead of Snipes doing a jump kick or whatnot. Norrington is a stunningly bad action director, even for bad action directors.

Other bad performances include Arly Jover, who at one point seems like she’s going to give a good performance but then doesn’t. Sanaa Latham is actually good, which takes a few moments to comprehend–unqualified good acting in Blade.

For Snipes, it’s a good lead role. Ish. There’s not a lot of heavy lifting, his occasional personable action hero insert shots are weird, but he gets through it. He and Wright have less chemistry than… I don’t know, Kristofferson and Wright or something. It’s unfortunate and another way the filmmakers fail Wright.

I’m a little curious how the Isham score stands on its own—at one point he’s got to add all the tension to an action sequence because Norrington can’t figure it out–but otherwise, Blade doesn’t have much one could learn from it. Outside the contextual trivia.

It’s nowhere near as bad (or good) as it could be, which is the biggest disappointment of all.

It’s eh.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Stephen Norrington; screenplay by David S. Goyer, based on the Marvel Comics character created by Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan; director of photography, Theo van de Sande; edited by Paul Rubell; music by Mark Isham; production designer, Kirk M. Petruccelli; produced by Robert Engelman, Peter Frankfurt, and Wesley Snipes; released by New Line Cinema.

Starring Wesley Snipes (Blade), Stephen Dorff (Deacon Frost), Kris Kristofferson (Whistler), N’Bushe Wright (Karen), Donal Logue (Quinn), Arly Jover (Mercury), Tim Guinee (Curtis), Sanaa Lathan (Vanessa), and Udo Kier (Dragonetti).


Blood and Wine (1996, Bob Rafelson)

Boiling them down, three things ruin Blood and Wine. Stephen Dorff, the script and the approach. The last two are complicated, because it’s hard to see determine where the script and the approach differ. Blood and Wine was, at the time of its release, promoted as the conclusion of an informal trilogy for Rafelson and Nicholson–Five Easy Pieces, The King of Marvin Gardens and this one. It isn’t. Blood and Wine is no character study. It’s an attempt at extracting the thriller elements from a film noir. In that aspect, it’s at least interesting. Rafelson gives the characters, who are still essentially archetypes, some more time to become full. Jennifer Lopez gets the most of this attention, playing the femme fatale, only with depth. Lopez’s Cuban accent comes and goes, but her performance is strong more often than it is weak.

Rafelson’s direction is brilliant. Nicholson is great. Judy Davis is great. Michael Caine is astounding–it’s hard to believe he gave this astounding performance then almost immediately started hacking it out. Seeing Dorff with these actors–though the majority of his scenes are with Lopez, who’s far better than he is, but not astronomically–is uncomfortable. Watching Davis (in her, unfortunately, glorified cameo) act opposite him… it’s incredible she was able to keep a straight face. She’s giving this layered, textured, beautiful performance and he’s got less screen presence than a wilted tulip. He’s just awful. Much of Blood and Wine can be spent imagining someone else in his role and how much more successful the film would have turned out.

But it isn’t just Dorff being a terrible actor, it’s how loose the script gets when it concerns he, Davis (as his mother) and Nicholson (as his step-father). Dorff’s an indeterminate, younger than Lopez in the film–at times it seems like he should be a teenager, then he drinks a beer in a bar so it seems like he should be at least twenty-one. The script makes him hostile to Nicholson–and turns him into an adaptive killing machine like Michael Biehn in The Terminator–so Blood and Wine flops when it tries to position the two as some kind of (albeit dysfunctional) father and son.

The scenes where Nicholson is caring for Davis, who he mistreats, are stunning. Or when he and Caine (as his partner in crime) are on a road trip, peerless. The scene where Nicholson cares for the ailing Caine… it’s wonderful. It’s a shame the film acts like Dorff and his romancing of his step-father’s girlfriend Lopez (which fails because Lopez isn’t visibly any older than Dorff) is a better plot thread.

The end of the film–it’s hard to say if Blood and Wine is too long, because it’s entirely too crappy in general by the final third, to really concentrate on assigning specific blame–is a misfire, almost a damning one. I had to force myself to remember how well Rafelson made the film and what beautiful performances sixty percent of the cast turned in.

Both Harold Perrineau and Mike Starr are good in smaller parts–especially Perrineau. Michal Lorenc’s music is wonderful, as is Newton Thomas Sigel’s photography. The editing–from Steven Cohen–occasionally has some bumps, like maybe Rafelson didn’t get enough coverage.

It’s an incredible disappointment.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Bob Rafelson; screenplay by Nick Villiers and Alison Cross, based on a story by Villiers and Rafelson; director of photography, Newton Thomas Sigel; edited by Steven Cohen; music by Michal Lorenc; production designer, Richard Sylbert; produced by Jeremy Thomas; released by Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Starring Jack Nicholson (Alex), Stephen Dorff (Jason), Jennifer Lopez (Gabby), Judy Davis (Suzanne), Michael Caine (Vic), Harold Perrineau (Henry), Robyn Peterson (Dina Reese), Mike Starr (Mike) and John Seitz (Mr. Frank Reese).


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