When you scroll through Guillermo del Toro‘s filmography looking for the one movie that turned the tide and made him the director he is today, your finger must stop on Blade II. While his fans will (and should) celebrate early efforts like Cronos and The Devil‘s Backbone as masterpieces, Mimic‘s critical, creative, and financial flop nearly derailed his career. In the early aughts, del Toro needed a success, and he found it with Marvel’s Daywalker.
Twenty years after its release, Blade II remains a rollicking, gnarly, and nasty action film. Adopting the Mission: Impossible franchise approach, where each sequel should strive to look and feel unlike whatever installment came before, Blade II drips with the melancholy mood you expect from all del Toro pictures. It’s a stew with chunks of recognizable design elements, which definitely included unborn babies floating in jars of thick, yellow liquid.
Screenwriter David S. Goyer concocted the movie as The Dirty Dozen for Blade. He partners Wesley Snipes‘ titular vampire hunter with the Bloodpack, a vampiric gang trained to combat Blade’s human/vampire hybrid. They must set aside their hatred for each other as they scour the streets, sewers, and nightclubs for even deadlier beasts.
A pandemic of unknown origin is sweeping through the human and vampire communities. Ghouls called Reapers are preying on everyone and everything. Their appetites are unquenchable, and their desire to stay hidden is absent. If Blade and his new bloodsucker buddies don’t halt the spread, the planet will fall to their tide. It’s the end times. Or, just another Tuesday for our hero.
Del Toro was bored with the sensual, soporific vampire. He wanted to reignite our dread for these beasts, and the Reapers were his ghastly backlash toward the sexy Anne Rice set. Their chins split down the middle, and their throats open wide, creating a three-way jaw. From deep within their gullets, a fanged proboscis strikes, and it’s this wormy thing that does the actual bloodsucking while also transferring the Reaper virus. Del Toro’s camera never fails to linger on their feeding process, and we’re forced to decide whether we can handle watching the orgasmic delight that comes with consumption.
As repulsive as these critters are, Blade II challenges our disgust. This is a Guillermo del Toro movie. Monsters deserve our empathy, and only those characters who offer it receive any grace from their filmmaker.
We learn that the Reapers were genetically engineered by the vampire puppet master Eli Damaskinos (Thomas Kretschmann). The ancient devil, who also looks like he has more in common with Nosferatu than Tom Cruise, is terrified that his species will slink forever into the shadows while superior specimens like Blade’s Daywalker rule the planet. His solution is to muck about in the laboratory, tinkering until he can remove such pesky flaws like aversions to garlic and sunlight from the vampire strain.
Damaskinos’ snobbery births an apocalypse. Nomak (Luke Goss), the first Reaper, is his son. The child cannot help what his father did to him and only went on the attack because his existence was threatened. By the time we reach Blade II‘s climax, the creatures we first see as vermin are now exposed as tragic, unwanted, and heartbroken offspring. Suddenly, Nomak fits into a del Toro lineup alongside Hellboy, the Amphibian Man from The Shape of Water, and Santi from The Devil‘s Backbone.
Blade II‘s other joy is that while the Reapers become sympathetic, the vampires that Blade aligned himself with redirect his vicious attention. Goyer and del Toro have established a video game hierarchy amongst the villainy. The film’s final third features a series of boss levels, each one building on the last, supplying one gorgeously grotesque fatality after another.
Blade explodes the turncoat Scud (Norman Reedus), the dusty blast confirmed by del Toro on the film’s commentary track as inspired by Terry Gilliam’s bloodless bursts in Time Bandits. He splits the nazi brute Reinhardt (Ron Perlman) straight down the middle, the death being a baptism in which the actor can arise as Anung Un Rama in del Toro’s next movie. He reluctantly penetrates Nomak’s bone encased heart with a shard from his sword. Okay, it’s not so reluctantly. Blade doesn’t do anything reluctantly.
In Blade’s every action, the viewer can sense Wesley Snipes’ intention. The self-professed comic book geek spent years trying to get his Black Panther made, and when that movie failed to realize, he moved his determination into fabricating the first Daywalker flick in 1998. Once claimed, he made Blade his Hamlet.
Before Blade, the actor’s career was a slow rise into superherodom. He positioned his victories in New Jack City, Jungle Fever, and White Man Can‘t Jump into a string of cinematic brawlers. There were moderate achievements but flicks like Passenger 57, Money Train, and U.S. Marshalls were not culturally sticky. Demolition Man made some noise with its three seashells, but Snipes’ Simon Pheonix, while memorable, was not that film’s champion.
The first Blade accomplished exactly what Snipes was chasing throughout the ’90s, and in hindsight, it marks the peak of the actor’s career. Paired with Men in Black and The Matrix, two other movies with deep ties to comic books, Blade ignited the superhero boom that ultimately erupted into an unstoppable tsunami with 2000’s X–Men and 2002’s Spider–Man.
Blade II was an inevitability due to Blade‘s success, and in return Blade II‘s inevitable success made way for the series’ most unfortunate sequel (they’ll have to find somebody else when Blade: Trinity‘s 20th anniversary rolls around). What was not an inevitability was Guillermo del Toro’s trajectory. If he had not landed the gig, he most likely would have discovered other avenues to keep doing what he does, but Blade II was an absolute vocational rekindling.
Del Toro used Blade II‘s bones to share his kinks with a franchise audience. He infused the film with his passion for comics, movies, novels, the occult, gore, monsters, and more. As with the best auteur experiences, Blade II opens a gateway to a dozen other weirdo endeavors. The willing and curious spot Scud’s B.P.R.D. t-shirt or his Hellboy bobblehead, and suddenly they’re reading Mike Mignola stories. The way a certain Reaper evaporates recalls Dr. Manhattan’s birth in Watchmen; a universe of Dave Gibbons art awaits you beyond the credits.
Blade II might not have as pivotal a function within the superhero genre as its predecessor, but it’s an absolutely essential link in Guillermo del Toro’s filmography. Watching it through your infatuation with the director, you will encounter everything you love about Pan‘s Labyrinth, Crimson Peak, and Nightmare Alley. It’s an obsessively rich world, where it’s easier to detonate a human than it is to stake a vampire.