Blade II

(2002) ** 1/2 R
106 min. New Line. Director: Guillermo del Toro. Cast: Wesley Snipes, Kris Kristofferson, Ron Perlman, Leonor Varela, Norman Reedus.

1998's Blade became that rarest and most hunted of Hollywood creatures: a franchise. This success story for New Line and star Wesley Snipes has come roaring back at the unfettered reins of Mexican horrormeister Guillermo del Toro (The Devil's Backbone), whose professional skill, painterly attention to composition and color, and creepy-crawly-oozy obsessions inject new blood into the mythology ripped from the pages of Marvel Comics and established on film by less-accomplished helmer Steven Norrington.

Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan's character Blade (a.k.a. Eric Brooks) is a half-man, half-vampire sneeringly dubbed "Daywalker" by his pure-blooded enemies: the vampire underclass who walk among us or, rather, mostly dance among us in loud, smoky, strobe-lit clubs. Blade II wastes little time, first with a primed-to-shock pre-title sequence, then a series of elaborate fight sequences for our hero, who takes care of business by ressurecting his fallen compatriot Whistler, the pleasingly leathery Kris Kristofferson character offed in the first film. This accomplished, del Toro plants the seeds of distrust and intrigue that eventually erupt from beneath the surface. Working the theme of keeping friends close and "enemies closer," Blade screenwriter David S. Goyer has devised a reason for the vampires to grudgingly team up with Blade against a common enemy: the Reapers, a new strain of vampire born of a rampant virus.

The new plot provides a broader canvas well-suited to del Toro's baroque graphic novel sensibilities and insinuating character motivation. The director makes good use of an astounding production design (overseen by Carol Spier, abetted by art directors Elinor Rose Galbraith and James F. Truesdale, and inspired by comic world consultants Timothy Bradstreet and Mike Mignola) that probably should be--and probably won't be--considered at Oscar time. Del Toro also employs a camera that swoops, spins, and dives, cool and tastefully rendered digital effects, and an elegant palette of richly saturated colors that brings to mind Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Where the first film boasted a dark gloss, this one has real style. Witty touches buoy the brief respites from kinetic action and awesome fight choreography.

Though continually inventive from a visual standpoint, the convoluted story and sledgehammering violence does grow tiring. Among the multitude of literally juicy villains is Ron Perlman (a two-time Jeunet star) as a sort-of vampire Delta Ranger on whose scalp Blade implants an explosive device to keep him in line. When not wrangling his vampire allies, Blade makes vamps fly apart in a hail of sparks with a well-placed silver bullet or a shaft of light. Then there's the oddly affecting vampire romance (between Blade and full-blooded vamp Leonor Varela), the requisite bottled fetuses, and the cleft chins of the Reapers, which open to reveal probing, festering tongues from which even Sigourney Weaver might hightail it. All this adds up to great adolescent adventure, but it's also an exhausting parade of creativity.

For Snipes's part, he's as stoic as ever and even more impressive in the Errol Flynn-meets-The Matrix fight scenes. There's nowhere else to go than self-parody, but he's bound to make another go-round, probably with an eager del Toro. At one point, Blade walks into his "batcave" and his assistant cracks, "Lock up your sons and daughters. The Dark Knight returns." On the basis of his output so far, I, for one, wouldn't mind a del Toro take on the dormant but undead Batman franchise. Hollywood, take note.

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