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Saturday, February 18, 2012

‘Ghost Rider’ Blazes Through A Frenetic Sequel



Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance:  I don’t know what star rating best applies, so I’ll say 3 out of 5
Johnny Blaze: This thing... There's no conscience, just hunger. The Rider's gonna come out. And when he does, he'll destroy whoever's got it coming.
Let’s start off with an obscure reference – The tagline for the mid-90s comic book film, The Phantom was “Slam Evil”.  In Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, Johnny Blaze, aka The Rider, doesn’t just slam evil, he literally sucks it in, chews on it, spits it out, then gives you the finger, as he drives off on his Hellcycle.  Let it be said right now, if you’re seeking a film full of constant clarity and touches of nuance, this sequel to (the inferior) Ghost Rider will not be for you.  However, if you want a film that has Nic Cage dialed to 11 and pissing fire, Idris Elba as a drunken French priest going on shooting rampages, and the Highlander himself – Christopher Lambert as a tattooed monk with a long scimitar, then this new Ghost Rider film, from the directing duo behind the Crank films, is one you may want to check out.


Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance picks up some time after the first film, set mostly in Eastern Europe.  Johnny Blaze (Nicolas Cage) is in self-imposed isolation, struggling with his curse, which causes him to become the Ghost Rider, a spirit of vengeance, as it were, that turns him into a deadly force that eliminates those who have committed evil deeds.  The main setback is that once The Rider comes out (and to be clear, I’m referring to a leather clad skeleton, with a flaming skull, equipped with chains and a motorcycle), it is near impossible for Blaze to control it; despite being a force that does justice…with hellfire.

Based on some brief setup that sets the story in motion, Blaze is recruited by a drunken French priest, Moreau (Idris Elba), who belongs to a secret sect of a church that is desperately trying to stop the arrival of the Anti-Christ (I can only imagine what their regular weekly activities are like).  The deal is:  if Johnny Blaze can safely retrieve Danny (Fergus Riordan), the boy caught up in this satanic fiasco, Moreau will rid Blaze of the curse of The Rider.  At the same time, an assassin named Carrigan (Johnny Whitworth) has made his own deal with the Devil, aka Roarke (Ciaran Hinds), to get the boy and hand it over to the bad guys.  Whoever wins, there’s certainly going to be a lot of death, destruction, and “roadkill” along the way.


This sequel was directed by the extreme directing duo credited as Nevaldine/Taylor (Mark Nevaldine and Brian Taylor), who certainly put to use their daredevil style of filmmaking.  The worst thing about the first Ghost Rider film (among other problematic issues it had) was that nothing much happened for long stretches of time.  For a film that involves a guy with a flaming skull, riding around and vanquishing evil, the last thing I want is to be bored.  There are a lot of things to say about Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, positive and negative, but I certainly was not bored while watching it, because this film is constantly throwing crazy stuff at you.  Scenes of clunkily handled exposition are balanced by the ridiculous nature of Cage’s performance, as he throws himself into the role in the way one hopes he would for his more action-oriented films.  Other scenes, where too much plot seems to be getting in the way, only lead to some wild sequences that follow right after.  The story and screenplay are definitely not this film’s selling point, but it is definitely made up by working as a frenetically made, rebellious superhero flick.
Nadya: I made a lot of mistakes. But Danny is the one good thing I ever did.
Johnny Blaze: That being the case, we better make sure he doesn't turn out to be the Anti-Christ.

As mentioned, Nevaldine/Taylor are responsible for the direction of this film and I have a hard time thinking of a superhero better suited for this directing team’s style.  In a crazier world we could have really seen the true “Hard R-rated” version of a Nevaldine/Taylor-directed Ghost Rider film, but even with the PG-13, the film seems pretty hardcore in what it does and is fairly close to the tone that a Ghost Rider film should be aiming for.  My main draw in seeing this film did revolve around these director’s involvement (and truth be told, I think the behind the scenes footage of them making this movie may be crazier than the film itself, so I look forward to the Blu-ray), as the duo is known for heavy involvement in filming their features.  Whether it be filming the actors at high speeds, while on rollerblades, or involving themselves in the stunts so they can get great shots on camera, these guys have that insane ambition that leads to a fairly unique visual sense being captured on film.

The best thing I can say about this film is how much it feels like a living comic book.  If I were to take various sequences of this film, turn them into still shots, and put them into various panels of different sizes, this would make for a pretty crazy Ghost Rider comic.  Even the dialogue, when it is not revolving around plot details, feels like characters speaking in short, animated sentences, fitting of a comic.  There is just enough story for this film to keep going, but when it gets to the bouts of action, the film delivers in plenty of varied ways.
Johnny Blaze:  He’s knocking at the doooorrRrrRr!

When dealing with The Rider in true form, we get a figure with a flaming skull, dressed in leather, and carrying chains, which looks pretty cool.  Unlike the first film, where the special effects certainly didn’t do enough justice to make Ghost Rider not look ridiculous (or not look ridiculous enough), this film has a better handle on what that look should be.  There is also great use made of Ghost Rider’s ability to turn any vehicle he inhabits turn into the “Hellfire” version, leading to some pretty neat action beats, which includes a crazy use of a large piece of construction equipment.  And all of the scenes involving motorcycle chases (which there can always be more of), were pretty fun to watch as well.

A review like this of course could not end without mention of Nicolas Cage’s work.  A week prior to the release of this film, Cage appeared on Saturday Night Live and stated that Ghost Rider would have two things.  Cage stated, “…all of the dialogue will be either whispered or screamed…and everything will be on fire.”  Cage is a man of his word.  In the role of his own personal favorite superhero, Cage definitely brings the “Wildman Cage Rage” that a good amount people enjoy seeing in his weirder roles.  And despite having his head replaced by a digital flaming skull, when in his Ghost Rider form, he also got to play The Rider this time around (as opposed to a stuntman, like the first film).  It is a level of energy that just isn’t equaled by many other actors.  


As far as the other performances go, the only two worth mentioning are Idris Elba and Johnny Whitworth.  Elba seems to be having a lot of fun as a drunken priest, especially as he involves himself in the action.  Whitworth, at first, fell flat, but as his character evolved into the character known as Blackout, things definitely got more interesting (I’ll leave it to the viewer to learn about what powers that persona develops).  It is also always nice to see Ciaran Hinds in things (I just gave notice to him in The Woman in Black as well).  Hinds hams it up here, appropriately (as he is playing the devil), and is a far cry better than Peter Fonda in the first film.

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance was produced under the Marvel Knights film banner for a reason.  Much like the first Marvel Knights film, Punisher War Zone, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance is definitely a film that many are going to hate, but also one that I can see developing a cult audience.  It is a manic mess of frenetically shot action sequences, insane idiosyncrasies courtesy of Nic Cage, and remnants of a coherent story.  For those reasons, the standard Marvel Studios banner is not quite the home for this film.  Spirit of Vengeance is definitely for a certain crowd that can appreciate a lesser known (yet profoundly awesome looking) character such as Ghost Rider, the quirks of Cage, and the previous Crank films from these directors.  It may not necessarily leave other audiences out in the cold either, but its manic nature could leave them feeling like their heads are kind of on fire.
Danny: What if you have to pee when you're on fire?
Johnny Blaze: Oh, it's awesome…it’s like a flamethrower.

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