Tom Jolliffe looks at Wesley Snipes’ recent film work, and there seems to be a welcome shift to the kind of interesting character actor roles he was known for earlier in his career…
Wesley Snipes saw something of a career down turn after hanging up his shades for Blade. Of course there have been well publicised legal wranglings which resulted in a prison sentence. Upon his release, the offers weren’t coming at him like a tidal wave. For several years prior to that sentence he’d been all but black-listed. A combination of major studios avoiding an actor with an impending and ongoing tax evasion case, and some reputed on set issues during Blade: Trinity. For a time, when his career should have been on a high having been a box office success with the first two Blade movies, Snipes was taking on a barrage of uninspiring straight to video action roles, and looking incredibly bored by the process. The truth is, DTV action films are lucrative for the stars, and the distributors aren’t too fussed if they’ve made an effort or not. Just getting their face on a cover is the end game they require.
Back at the beginning, Snipes was a jobbing (and talented) actor. He made fleeting appearances in some popular films like Major League and Wildcats. Step forward to 1990-1992 and there is a period of time which launched Wesley’s career as a key rising talent, and potential box office power. He appeared in Abel Ferrara’s, The King of New York. It’s one of Ferrara’s most interesting and compelling works, and its ensemble is great, anchored by an inspired Christopher Walken. As two cops trying to nail him, David Caruso and Snipes made an interesting double act and Ferrara just layered in an undertone to their relationship for good measure.
Then Snipes, one of the most prominent rising black stars, would of course cross paths with Spike Lee. They made Mo Better Blues together where Snipes co-starred with Denzel Washington. In support, Snipes was excellent, but following that he was front and centre. A major leading role in a Spike Lee joint came with Jungle Fever which saw Snipes and Annabelle Sciorra in an interracial relationship. Snipes was getting interesting roles in films that were getting critical praise. Snipes’ popularity would also surge thanks to his role as Nino Brown in New Jack City, a key film in 90’s black cinema from director/star Mario Van Peebles (and co-starring Ice-T). This was Snipes’ Scarface. Then he had the immensely popular hit film, White Men Can’t Jump. An enjoyable, razor sharp comedy with visceral basketball sequences and loads of chemistry between Wesley and Woody Harrelson. The film was greeted positively across the board, and it only further cemented a Chameleon-esque ability for Snipes to inhabit a diverse selection of characters.
Then came a career choice that would be both a blessing and a curse for Snipes. He made the Die-Hard formula, but very decent, Passenger 57. It was a big hit, and showed off Snipes as a black contender to rival the likes of Stallone et al in the action arena. Snipes, a highly accomplished martial artist wasn’t just playing tough, he was legitimately tough and his lightening quick, efficient street style moves looked great on camera. He could fight on screen, and he had something distinct, meaning he could have a trademark the same as Van Damme (with his balletic and showstopping helicopter kicks) or Steven Seagal (who made Aikido look gritty, effective, but graceful at the same time). This triggered a run of action thrillers including Drop Zone, Money Train (with Woody Harrelson again), Murder At 1600, Demolition Man (where he steals the movie from Stallone) and Rising Sun (a very underrated Michael Crichton adaption co-starring Sean Connery). Snipes was proving popular in a niche corner but had stopped short of a huge hit.
Blade delivered that huge hit and marked the first successful screen transition from comic book to screen for Marvel, essentially laying out the platform for the likes of X-Men, Spider-Man and eventually the MCU run that still runs like a juggernaut. The opening 45 minutes of Blade is still peerless as far as Marvel comic action. It’s fantastic. Amazing action, great style and Snipes was a revelation as Blade. The film fell apart slightly (vampires out in sunlight thanks to some sunblock) but regardless, the success at the box office meant a sequel, which was flawed but decent with no shortage of visionary style from Guillermo del Toro, and again, in the fight sequences, Snipes was exceptional. Of course that run ended, and the third film was a disaster and all but ended Snipes as a viable leading man in big budget action.
His post-incarceration work began with a bit of a mixture. He’s made a few straight to video action films, but with more enthusiasm mustered than prior to his sentence. Final Recall, with Snipes as a reclusive nut job fighting aliens wasn’t a great film by any stretch but was efficiently made and showed Snipes willing to create an interesting character. He had a short lived TV show (The Player) which didn’t make too many waves, but he also had a big screen comeback when Stallone and The Expendables came calling. So far, so okay. He was back working without getting anything quite worthy of his talents.
Still, the re-emergence of Snipes hadn’t escaped the attention of Spike Lee who gave him a role in Chi-Raq. It would end up bypassing a huge deal of attention by Lee’s standards (particularly compared to his resurgence post BlacKkKlansman) but it still marked a significant role for Snipes and a show of faith from a previous collaborator. People hadn’t forgotten that behind the shades and the public trial, stood first and foremost, a brilliant character actor. Last year saw many things, but not least a triumphant return to form for Eddie Murphy in My Name is Dolemite (sorely undervalued in the major award ceremonies and one of Netflix’s finest originals to date). It was amazing to see Murphy inspired and knocking it out the park, but additionally, Wesley Snipes was given a great role, one which he fulfilled with aplomb in a scene stealing turn as blaxsploitation director, D’Urville Martin. This was Snipes with the wind in his sails and confident backing behind him.
Continuing in his resurgence, with some interesting characters to play, Snipes has a couple of very promising projects on the horizon. Director Craig Brewer (Dolemite) is back with Murphy and Snipes for a long await sequel to Coming To America. For long time fans of the original it’s great to see, but likewise, the opportunity to see Snipes playing opposite Eddie Murphy again is also exciting. Snipes has long had a gift for comedy that perhaps got overshadowed when he transitioned into becoming an action man. Then there’s more intense fare with Cut Throat City, that looks potentially like a career best for director RZA. Snipes seems to have an important role, something akin to Stallone’s transition from star to mentor when Rocky became second fiddle to Adonis Creed in Ryan Coogler’s re-invention. Snipes, older, wiser, playing his age, a tough guy of old will step in when his son finds himself in trouble. With recent historical events played out, along with prescient issues, the film looks potentially very good and undoubtedly, Snipes will maintain a presence of gravitas in the cast in the kind of role which could usher in a new chapter of his career as he approaches 60.
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Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due in 2020/21, including The Witches Of Amityville Academy (starring Emmy winner, Kira Reed Lorsch), Tooth Fairy: The Root of Evil and the star studded action film, Renegades. Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see…https://www.instagram.com/jolliffeproductions/