This is why Wesley Snipes doesn’t stay up nights wondering where everything went wrong. Sure, he started out playing a sensitive jazz musician for Spike Lee, which is a career of sorts, but this—this is living. Swathed in a full-length leather coat lined in crimson silk, strutting around his postindustrial Batcave with such ritualistic precision that it’s impossible to imagine the guy doing anything as ordinary as vacuuming, Snipes in the macho-masochistic fantasy of the Blade franchise is having a much better time than he ever did in Lee’s beat-me-up-buttercup realismo. However much of the Martian martial arts actually involve Snipes’ person is beside the point, especially in the post-Matrix version; the man single-handedly makes a fade look tight. And for that alone he’s earned his good night’s sleep and some very large paychecks.

A sleeper hit that took audiences by storm and box-office bean counters by surprise, 1998’s Blade introduced the non-comic-book-reading public to a half-human/half-vampire, all-butt-kicking Marvel hero. Called Daywalker by the jealous vamps he fights, Blade (Snipes) claims to have all of the strengths of both species and none of their weaknesses—which would have made for a one-note hero if it hadn’t been for the distraction of eyeball-shattering violence during the film’s every moment. The sequel ups the ante in a number of ways, throwing aside the narrative set in motion by the original (just so you know, Whistler’s not all that dead, and there’s a new vampire regent—as if Stephen Dorff never existed), ramping up the gory-bloody-grue quotient to mind-altering levels and bringing in a great horror director who never saw a vampire yarn he couldn’t make into a thoughtful art film.

Mexican gothicist Guillermo Del Toro, author-director of 1993’s terrific Christian vampire parable Cronos and last year’s The Devil’s Backbone, shapes the chintzy plot into something graceful and rich with detail. Shot and set in Prague, Blade II takes advantage of that ravaged grande dame of a city by casting a flattering, night-stalking glow on her secret interiors, sumptuous curves, and rich, subtle colors. Like vampire lore itself, the city pulses with dark history. And David S. Goyer’s script updates the tainted-blood-as-AIDS metaphor for the next century—there’s a new superstrain of infectious monsters, impervious to silver, garlic, and even the trusty stake in the heart. Like Daywalker himself, they can do everything vampires can do plus—and almost everything humans can do except tolerate sunlight. If Reapers, as they’re called, are a nigh-invulnerable strain of our formerly containable friend tuberculosis, then Blade is weapons-grade penicillin.

Roused from mourning over the loss of his mentor, Whistler (Kris Kristofferson), and aided by an eccentric slacker techie guy (Norman Reedus) who plays Q to his Bond, Blade is recruited by the Vampire Nation to team up with a specially trained all-vamp assault team called the Bloodpack and hunt down Reapers. Blade finds Whistler, meets the ‘Pack without bursting into laughter (“Priest,” “Verlaine,” “Lighthammer,” et al. look like denizens of a decadent underground nightclub, and—what luck—guess where their first assignment is?), and proceeds to throw himself bodily into the series of monumentally bitchen action sequences that constitute the remainder of the story. The film indulges in digital tampering with such breezy familiarity it’s as if the technology had been around for decades, not years—ninja vampires scamper like spiders, and judicious acceleration does a better job of pumping up a close fight than old-fashioned clip-editing ever did.

The spectacular sets, costumes (by Wendy Partridge, who’s having far too much fun), and fight choreography often outperform the actors, particularly Leonor Varela as Nyssa, Blade’s vampiric semi-demi-hemi love interest, and those poor Blood Typos. Not that wit is a priority of the script, rich with exchanges such as “Where are we?” “Some kind of chamber, deep in their lair” as it is, but what wit is evidenced by the film is buried in its formal elements and glancing attitude toward its comic-book origin, which is never too far below the surface.

But Blade II is about Action with a capital “Ack!” and a bloodier, more violent goo-dripping gorefest hasn’t been made outside of anime. Vamps snort crystallized blood, eat bloody gelatin rings, bathe in fancy blood-filled wading ponds, explode in a shower of sparks when destroyed—ooh! aah!—and generally swan about with far fewer regrets than Anne Rice’s tormented philosophers. And those are the elegant ones; the revolting mutants unhinge their jaws to get a better grip on their victims, and as tradition demands, the hot chick is also the medical expert. By the end, we’ve been spared no physiological detail these supersuckheads’ urologists haven’t seen, with all attendant mucus discharge.

For his part, Del Toro distances himself from the cheesy plot, and he’s never been an actor’s director, either—his love for casting Ron Perlman surpasseth understanding. His feel is for tone and texture: the velvety darkness and cold concrete of urban anxiety and the jarring humanness of the migraine-inducing music that at once narrates and erects a barrier to any emotional immediacy the film might spark. Not that it ever does, of course. Unless, of course, you count your appreciative laugh after someone gets a really well-timed sharp thing through the top of the skull—and his eyes keep moving. CP