[23 February 2012]
When the first Ghost Rider movie premiered in 2007, it was an unexpected turning point for actor (and one-time comic-book collector) Nicolas Cage. While he has alternated small, artsy projects and big, trashy paydays for much of his career, Ghost Rider was different, more low-rent than Cage’s usual low-rent movies, not to mention the recent wave of Marvel Comics adaptations. It was also surprisingly profitable.
Five years later, Cage’s detours have become more winding. And Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance feels more akin to another Cage supernatural programmer like Drive Angry or Season of the Witch than a follow-up to one of his biggest hits. It takes Johnny Blaze (Cage)—the stunt motorcyclist whose deal with the devil gave him the ability to shift into the skull-headed monster Ghost Rider—on a fiery, sweaty low-budget adventure through Romania and Turkey (playing themselves).
But this mercenary approach has allowed a degree of risk absent from the first movie, shepherded by Mark Steven Johnson, who applied everything he learned from his Daredevil movie about how to ruin a potential comics franchise with a strong cast. A new creative team takes over for Spirit of Vengeance, and one advantage over some other stops on Cage’s shlock-cinema tour is the guiding hand of filmmaking duo Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor. They’re credited as Neveldine/Taylor, better to resemble an advertising firm or videogame design collective.
Neveldine/Taylor are responsible for the gonzo Crank series, but trash movie aficionados should banish any thoughts of an electric-shock-powered Nicolas Cage. To be clear: this is still a PG-13 sequel with some presumed fidelity to the comics (David Goyer, who has worked on the Blade and Batman series, is a cowriter), and contains few to none of Crank‘s winking transgressions.
Instead, the film offers other pleasures. Just as Neveldine/Taylor is a sillier, more self-aware directing entity than Mark Steven Johnson, Spirit of Vengeance is a tighter, weirder, funnier enterprise than its predecessor. The story is supernatural-thriller boilerplate: there’s a child (Fergus Riordan) who could bring about the apocalypse (or something) if the devil, in human form called Roarke (Ciarán Hinds), gets ahold of him. The child and his protective mother Nadya (Violante Placido) go on the run from the devil’s minions, and the rogue priest Moreau (Idris Elba) seeks Blaze’s help, promising to rid him of the Ghost Rider curse. Vehicular chases and battles with various demonic superpowers ensue, all shot with scrappy energy.
Major proponents of digital cinematography, Neveldine and Taylor favor compact Red One cameras and hardy, stunt-happy cameramen (including themselves) who are willing to careen around blacktops and zoom off of cliffs on rigs. The resulting visuals are a grab bag of close-ups, low angles, and washed-out sky shots, like an exploitation version of late-period Michael Mann; it’s not exactly high style, but it puts more effort into the cost-effective burning of rubber than the perfunctory Ghost Rider.
That Neveldine/Taylor enthusiasm infects Cage. In the past, he’s sometimes looked sleepy in even the most outlandish settings, but in parts of Spirit of Vengeance, he works up enough manic energy for the movie to resemble Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call Eastern Europe. In one of the best scenes, he interrogates a bad guy, wielding his impending Ghost Rider transformation as a threat while also trying to hold it in (“It’s scratching at the door!” he cries as his eyes spasm into skeleton sockets—digitally assisted, although I assume Cage would transform himself if he could). It’s a Cage opera in miniature, destined for future fan reels dedicated to his frequent rococo weirdness.
The actor’s outbursts and pauses for bizarre reflection keep the movie twitching even when the screenplay and/or budget confine the large-scale thrills to just a few sequences (though all of them are more memorable and satisfying than their first-movie counterparts). The lack of nonstop action may disappoint adrenaline junkies bowled over by Crank. But for all the freakish amusements of the Crank movies, they’re not action pictures so much as perpetual mayhem machines; Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance has the traditional rhythm of an unabashed B movie, not a rabid deconstruction of same.
It’s also a respite from the serious universe building of the Marvel movies, which rarely possess Dark Knight-style ambition, but nonetheless strive for reverence. The contrasting cheapish dopiness of Spirit of Vengeance recalls the junky comic-book movies of the ‘90s, made primarily to hang on to the character rights: if Sony doesn’t keep making cruddy Ghost Rider sequels, they risk losing the ability to, uh, keep making cruddy Ghost Rider sequels.
Neveldine/Taylor deliver their trash with more mischief than you’ll find in Judge Dredd or Spawn (or, for that matter, more recent disappointments like Elektra). Halfway through the movie, the villain Blackout (Johnny Whitworth), who can turn things to ash with his touch, searches for food that he can eat before it disintegrates in his hand, until he finds a particularly synthetic junk-food snack that won’t decay. Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance is that kind of Twinkie.