[20 February 2012]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
You wouldn’t buy a prime piece of beef filet just to grind it up and use it as dog food. You also wouldn’t spend hundreds of dollars on a brand new wooden deck just to douse it with gasoline and set it on fire. Yet Hollywood does something similar every day. From taking the latest in a long line of talent-limited TV cupies and putting them in roles they have no business being considered for (“she’s a hard edged cop who doesn’t play by the rules…”) to asking aging A-listers to stretch out into ridiculous comedy or comic book villain mode, Tinseltown loves to take the inherent skills of a performer or member of the production personal and insert its own ‘know better’ belief. Sure, without it, typecasting would be even more rampant than it was during the Golden Age, yet there’s something to be said about letting people play to their strengths, instead of stifling the very reasons you hired them in the first place.
A perfect example of this irritating ideal comes in the critically lambasted Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance. An unnecessary sequel to an equally pointless 2007 Nicolas Cage vehicle, the story centers around a man living with a curse. Having sold his soul to the Devil for the life of his father, he’s become Satan’s soul catcher, roaming the Earth, transforming into a fire-headed skeleton whenever evil is around. The original, written and directed by Mark Steven Johnson, went for a tricky tongue in cheek approach, and while not always successful, it gave its star a big fat goofy gift to go gonzo in. When a follow-up was mandated, the movie suits made the wise choice of picking geeks Neveldine/Taylor to take over. Responsible for two of the guiltiest pleasures in all of post post-modern cinema - the Jason Statham sensations Crank and Crank: High Voltage, they promised to bring a whole new level of creative chaos to the genre, and the series.
Of course, there was also reason to be a bit concerned. This wasn’t the boys first trip through big budget tentpole territory. Back when both High Voltage and their Gerard Butler effort Gamer were earning tech nerd accolades, they were given the assignment of turning DC character Jonah Hex into the next Summer smash. Digging deep in the mythos surrounding the zombie cowboy capable of speaking to the dead, the duo delivered a script perfectly matched to their filmmaking skills. As discussed in the previous blog post The ‘Jonah Hex’ You Didn’t Get to See, the narrative created by Neveldine/Taylor bore little resemblance to the final product produced. That’s because Warners couldn’t see the men behind the outrageous hard-R antics of Chev Chelios and his various politically incorrect compatriots handling their popcorn season prize.
So naturally they turned everything over to the man who made Horton Hears a Who. That’s right, the wisdom of those with too much power and too little sense determined that an untried animator turned director, who got his start working on CG efforts like Toy Story and Robots would be the perfect novice to bring this material to the mainstream. The hyper-stylized vision of Neveldine/Taylor was tossed aside for a more Wild Wild West approach, the results being a horrific hodgepodge of possibilities and problems. The proposed blockbuster bombed at the box office, arguing once again for the fabled “too many cooks” conceit to making movies…and when you consider that little to none of their original screenplay was used, it seemed that our dizzy duo would survive the filmmaking fiasco.
Yet something similar seems to have happened to Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance. Anyone who knows Neveldine/Taylor’s work sat dumbstruck on opening day as the effort that unfolded before them suffered from a substantial lack of oddball life. Dull, listless, and rote, it’s as if the pair were purposely toned down to meet a certain predetermined criteria…and one look at the cast and crew confirms this. Instead of handling the script themselves, the god-awful trio of David S. Goyer, Seth Hoffman, and Scott Gimple gave birth to the bevy of bad ideas here. From the aggravating Antichrist angle to the dispirit Eastern European location, everything appears to be a cheap afterthought. Even worse, the narrative approach taken by the trio’s script spits directly in the face of everything Neveldine/Taylor stand for.
All of which begs the question - why hire Picasso to paint your house? Put another way - if you have a pair of directors who are known for their anarchic style and incredibly stylized approach, if you have a duo who deliver the kind of jaw dropping dementia that would perfectly suit a post-Oscar Cage and his take on this character, why force them into a position they are incapable of existing in? All throughout the senseless sequel, things are hemmed in. Action scenes don’t have the same insane bite, while performances range from regular (Idris Elba, Ciaran Hinds) to the nonexistent (little Fergus Riordan is surprisingly one note as the future son of Scratch). Only Cage seems settled with being both normal and nuts. His turn is typical paycheck cashing crazy.
But keeping Neveldine/Taylor in check undermines the reasons behind hiring them in the first place. Again, it’s like asking an opera diva to sing a favored aria, just to later Auto-Tune her voice. These guys are firecrackers - they should be allowed to explode. Dumping the film into mid-February suggests a lack of faith in any financial longevity of the franchise, so why not let everyone have fun in the process? What’s onscreen now barely resembles what these filmmakers are capable of. Indeed, where their influence shows, it sticks out like a very sore and very significant thumb. A demonic bike rider, his head a mass of flickering flames, seems perfect for these guys to explore and exploit. Instead, their vision arrives in minimal, meaningless spurts. In fact, it’s fairly safe to say that Johnson had a better handle on what to do here than the duo taking over for him.
The result, of course, is a critical lambasting and a third place finish for the weekend (beaten by two holdovers - The Vow and Safe House). Experts point out this poor performance based on the original’s opening take, and rake Neveldine/Taylor over the coals for being glorified geeks instead of real directors. One imagines the pair embracing the comment, considering that their Crank films feature a frenzied array of ideas and approaches. Still, it’s unfair that a studio decides to hire someone capable of such guile and yet ties their hands in the process. Maybe a pure Neveldine/Taylor Ghost Rider would have been as awful as the version currently cluttering up theaters, but we will never know for sure. As it stands, their take on the character represents yet another example of Hollywood hindering what it should be fostering…and defeating the purpose in the process.