Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance: Almost Half-Good
dir. Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor
Let’s be clear: The first Ghost Rider was a total piece of shit. Which is to say that everything about the film was completely awful. No redeeming value. Full stop. If you like the first Ghost Rider movie, you’re wrong. Last year, the nerd media reported the most heartening news that any comic-book-movie fanboy could possibly hear about the Ghost Rider sequel: everything was going to be completely different. Crank and Crank: High Voltage directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor were brought on to deliver a much-needed shot of steroids squarely in the franchise’s naked eyeball—say what you will about the horny kineticism of the Crank duology, but it was anything but generic. And their success rate with the finished product is really quite remarkable: Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance is 40 percent of a very good, very weird superhero movie.
I was obfuscating a bit when I said Neveldine/Taylor (as they’re credited) made everything about Spirit of Vengeance completely different. They kept Nicolas Cage as the leading man, but his performance is so different from the bland, bad hairpiece–laden drivel of the first film that they might as well have hired a different actor. This is Cage in full-on The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans mode, creating a spastic, twitchy ode to substance abuse. The way Cage reads some lines here is practically a tribute to the meaninglessness of words—one gem of a scene near the beginning of the film where he interrogates a man while trying to hold back the demon inside him will have to be included in any Cage highlight reel, along with the alphabet recitation from Vampire’s Kiss, the “prickly pear!” ejaculation from Leaving Las Vegas, and the stuffed-bunny threat from Con Air.
I guess there’s a plot. Cage, as Johnny Blaze, is trying to lay low in Europe and keep the demonic Ghost Rider stuffed inside of him, but he comes across a gypsy (the forgettable Violante Placido) who is trying to protect her son (the serviceable Fergus Riordan) from his father, a man named Roarke who appears to be the devil (Ciarán Hinds, as understatedly weird as Cage is over the top). Roarke has a thug named Carrigan to do his dirty work, and Johnny Whitworth’s performance as Carrigan is remarkable only because he appears to be a perfect young clone of Kurt Russell with exactly half the charisma removed. Idris Elba anchors the first part of the film as a wine-loving monk who enlists Blaze in the fight against Roarke’s goons. It’s a slight comic-book-movie performance—not even as weighty as Elba’s appearance as Heimdall in last summer’s Thor—but the way Elba rolls a schlocky French accent around in his mouth is eminently lovable, especially when he says the word “vengeance” like it’s a velvet-lined coffin: “von-jeeaaaaahhhhnnnnnsssss.”
The big problem with 40 percent of Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance being good is that 60 percent of it is very bad. There’s way too much exposition, and the action can be really hard to follow. (Important aside: Absolutely do NOT see this movie in 3-D. Modern digital 3-D works best, as in Scorsese’s Hugo, with long, stately tracking shots that allow the eyes to take in the depth and detail of a scene. Neveldine/Taylor’s jumpy editing style in 3-D is a disaster for your eyes. Even I—who have never once gotten motion sickness in real life—had to avert my eyes out of the threat of nausea during a couple of racing scenes.) The plot doesn’t even try to connect the dots between one set piece and another, and the film’s PG-13 rating keeps the directors from really cutting loose, the way they did in the Crank movies.
But if you have more than a passing acquaintance with the history of comic books, you’ll understand how that 40–60 split between mad genius and corporate dreck is highly appropriate. Ghost Rider was created during the last great renaissance period for superhero comics; the smarmy, druggy, existential 1970s, when creators like Gene Colan, Steve Gerber, Neal Adams, and Denny O’Neil were plugging wild experimentation into the already well-established formula. Some of Neveldine/Taylor’s visual tricks and narrative eccentricities—a special camera shot when Carrigan approaches his victims, a weird flourish explaining away the almost certainly fatal consequences of one of Elba’s few stunts—have never before been seen in mainstream superhero movies. Like those early comics that had a faint whiff of danger, of art, creeping in between the panels, Neveldine/Taylor manage to sneak a little bit of real filmmaking into the Marvel movie crap.