In the first part of a new Rotten Tomatoes feature, we examine the career ups and downs of our favorite fallen celebrities — as charted by the Tomatometer, of course, and with only the best of intentions in mind. (“See how far you’ve plunged? Get that Celebrity Tomatometer back in Fresh territory!”)
And so, with his three-year prison sentence for tax evasion looming, and an all new film hitting the home video market (the direct-to-DVD Art of War 2: Betrayal), we’re kicking off our What The Hell Happened To…? series with a look at the past, present, and future of actor, fifth degree black belt, and enemy of the 16th Amendment, Wesley Snipes.
What are you waiting for? Begin your journey down memory lane with the Tomatometer as your guide…
First up: The Early Years
The Early Years
Wesley Snipes first burst onto the scene in with a pair of sports flicks that, while poorly received, showcased his natural athleticism and charisma — strengths that Snipes would depend on throughout his career. He also benefitted from working closely with up and coming talent, a future studio head, and an Oscar-winning director right from the start. His first role, as an unruly football player opposite comedic mainstay Goldie Hawn in 1986’s Wildcats, was also the first of three on-screen pairings with up-and-coming Cheers star Woody Harrelson. Later that year Snipes did push-ups opposite Heroes’ Adrian Pasdar as an aspiring boxer in Streets of Gold, which was also the directorial debut of future studio exec Joe Roth.
One year and one line of dialogue in a Michael Jackson music video later, Snipes was attracting even more attention from Hollywood. (He appeared in the extended version of “Bad,” directed by Martin Scorsese, playing a rival gang leader who MJ inexplicably dances into submission.) Opting out of a role in Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, Snipes went for his first big mainstream role — again as a star athlete — as the speedy, base-stealing Willie Mays Hayes in 1989’s Major League. The baseball comedy gave Snipes a much-needed boost, and at 86 percent on the Tomatometer, became his best-reviewed film to date.
Next: Becoming a Bankable Star
Becoming a Bankable Star
The early 1990s marked a turn towards dramatic roles that served Snipes’ burgeoning career well. First, he teamed up with Spike Lee to contribute a memorable performance as Denzel Washington’s saxophonist pal in Mo’ Better Blues, and later that year joined the ensemble cast of Abel Ferrara’s acclaimed blood opera, King of New York. The combination of a plum role as megalomaniac drug lord Nino Brown in New Jack City and his first star turn in Lee’s Jungle Fever cemented Snipes’ rise to the ranks of leading man. This would also be the best-reviewed period of his career — and with nary a windsprint or karate chop to be seen! In 1991, Snipes also founded his own production company, Amen Ra Films, which would go on to produce The Big Hit, Snipes’ telefilm Futuresport, and the Blade trilogy.
After those bloody urban flicks and Spike Lee joints, Snipes went for another change of pace. In 1992, he took on a supporting role as a paraplegic in The Waterdance, which won an Independent Spirit Award and earned him the highest Tomatometer of his career. Reuniting with his Wildcats co-star Woody Harrelson, Snipes also starred as a street ball-playing hustler in the buddy-basketball comedy, White Men Can’t Jump, earning more critical praise and mainstream recognition. But by late 1992, Hollywood action roles were a’calling…and Snipes was on speed dial.
Next: The Action Star Years
The Action Star Years
The Wesley Snipes as we now know him — lean, mean, martial arts action star — came to life in 1992’s Passenger 57. As former cop John Cutter, Snipes saved a plane from terrorists using his fists, his wiles, and a gun — much like John McClane did the year before in Die Hard 2. Snipes would follow Passenger 57 with lead roles opposite Sean Connery and Dennis Hopper in films like Rising Sun, Boiling Point and Drop Zone, culminating in his performance as the peroxided villain Simon Phoenix in Demolition Man, for which he received the ultimate validation: equal billing with Sylvester Stallone.
Unfortunately for Snipes’ career Tomatometer, higher billing came with a price: chronically negative reviews. After Demolition Man, 27 of his subsequent 28 films would be Rotten. Bizzare brushes with the law also marred Snipes’ rise to the A-list: in 1993 he was convicted on a misdemeanor charge of carrying a loaded weapon, and one year later led Florida police on a 30-mile chase that ended when he crashed his motorcycle during production of Drop Zone.
Next: Odd Decisions and a Rotten Run of Luck
Odd Decisions and a Rotten Run of Luck
Once he achieved action-star status, Snipes took nary a detour…with a few exceptions. The most conspicuous diversion in his mid- to late- 90s trajectory was also his most surprising role to date: drag queen Noxeema Jackson in To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything, Julie Newmar. While the comedy would gain a cult audience, it reaped only modest box office returns. His third team-up with Woody Harrelson, the buddy comedy Money Train, also proved critically and commercially disappointing. Snipes ventured further outside his niche by dabbling in projects for television, appearing in the award-winning HBO series America’s Dream (for which he won an Image Award), providing guest vocals to HBO’s children’s animated series Happily Ever After, and producing and starring in the TV film Futuresport. But overall critical indifference to these outside ventures seemingly led Snipes back to his bread and butter, and he returned with starring roles in The Fan, Murder at 1600, and U.S. Marshals.
Sadly, even these action star roles wouldn’t completely pay off for Snipes. Back in his comfort zone (the run’n’gun thriller genre), even playing opposite the likes of Robert De Niro, Alan Alda, and Tommy Lee Jones couldn’t pull Snipes out of his critical slump. More detours into unexpected territory ensued, with mixed results. Top lining the Mike Figgis drama One Night Stand did not work out as well for Snipes as Figgis’ Leaving Las Vegas had for Nicolas Cage the year before, though another dramatic role, in the Maya Angelou-directed Down in the Delta, drew praise — and, at 76 percent on the Tomatometer, gave him the last Fresh Tomatometer of his career to date.
[Around this time, Snipes co-founded The Royal Guard of Amen-Ra, an elite bodyguard training organization. He also began filing for false tax refunds in the state of Florida as a client of an illegal tax evasion operation, a move that would lead to his pending prison sentence.]
Next: A Karate-Kicking Vampire Changes Everything
A Karate-Kicking Vampire Changes Everything
Things were looking very unsettled for Wesley Snipes following a half-decade of questionable career choices. And then there was Blade. Starring as the half human, half-vampire daywalker Blade, Snipes drew his biggest opening weekend yet — and without the added box office draw of a co-star like Stallone, Connery, or De Niro. With a $130 million worldwide take, Blade not only started a three-film franchise, it also proved the power of the superhero film. Snipes received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and for the first time in twelve years, took a break from acting.
Unfortunately for Snipes, he also opted to take a break from paying taxes, and didn’t file for the years between 1999 and 2004.
Next: The Downward Slide
The Downward Slide
After a two-year hiatus, Snipes was back…or so it seemed. Tackling both acting and executive producing duties on the U.N. thriller The Art of War, Snipes was once again in his groove. But the film was a critical and commercial failure, serving up Snipes’ second-worst career Tomatometer rating. He countered with the HBO romantic drama Disappearing Acts, based on a Terry McMillan novel, but otherwise took another uncharacteristic break from major studio projects. A 2000 investigation into alleged ties between his bodyguard company and an extremist cult in Georgia, later dismissed, didn’t help improve his reputation. Luckily, Snipes would soon return to his new magic formula: The Blade franchise. Blade II benefitted from Guillermo del Toro’s action-packed direction, though critics marked it just shy of Fresh; Snipes picked up additional credits as producer and fight coordinator and the film surpassed the original with a franchise-best box office take.
But following the huge success of Blade II, Snipes seemed to simply be killing time until the next Blade sequel. He married South Korean painter Nakyung Park in 2003 and spent the subsequent years splitting time between Asia and the United States. His in-between projects varied from independent drama (David S. Goyer’s directorial debut, ZigZag — which opened in exactly one theater) to a prison boxing B-movie opposite Ving Rhames (Undisputed) to a guest spot on The Bernie Mac Show. Of the four films completed between Blade II and Blade: Trinity, only Undisputed opened in wide release. During this time, Snipes also hit a major milestone in his career: he had his very first direct-to-video clunker (Unstoppable). Shortly thereafter, when Blade: Trinity opened in 2004 and became the worst-reviewed and weakest-performing film in the series, the honeymoon was over for Snipes and New Line. In 2005 he sued frequent collaborator Goyer and New Line Cinema for damages from the film’s failure.
Next: Exile in Direct-To-Video Land
Exile in Direct-To-Video Land
Times have changed for Wesley Snipes; since 2004’s Blade: Trinity, none of his films have played in theaters. Still, he’s remained prolific, releasing no less than seven direct-to-video actioners in the last three years. Of course, we know what else he’s been up to in that time. Convicted in April 2008 on three misdemeanor tax fraud charges, Snipes was sentenced to serve three years in prison. He needs those direct-to-video dollars, people — legal fees don’t pay themselves!
His latest release, The Art of War 2: Betrayal, hits shelves this week. But another action-thriller — the 2009 zombie Western Gallowwalker, which Snipes was filming in Namibia when he was indicted on his 2006 tax charges — could be his first theatrically released film since his exile in direct-to-video land. Another long-gestating project, the Asian drug thriller Chasing the Dragon, is slated to begin filming this month. Could things be looking up for Wesley Snipes, at least until jail time commences?
In closing, we’d like to see the Wesley Snipes we know and love — the dynamic actor from films like Mo’ Better Blues, Jungle Fever, White Men Can’t Jump, New Jack City, and yes, Blade — return to form as one of the biggest stars of his generation. He’s been as high as 92 percent (The Waterdance) and as low as 12 percent (Wildcats). He’s got the dramatic chops of a leading man, and the karate chops of an action hero. Perhaps it’s as simple as picking better projects. Filling Steven Seagal’s direct-to-video shoes is a fate Wesley Snipes doesn’t deserve. There is a way to be fresh again.
To explore your favorite fallen star’s path to Tomatometer glory (or infamy), check out our Celebrity pages here.