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Friday, April 28, 2017

Director Report Card: Neveldine/Taylor (2011)

4. Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance

“Gamer” may have flopped but the unique directorial team of Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor weren't down for the count just yet. The duo would get their biggest budget yet by taking a stab at the ever-popular superhero genre. On one hand, few people were probably asking for a sequel to the critically reviled but financially successful “Ghost Rider.” On the other hand, if any Marvel character was perfectly suited to Neveldine/Taylor's aesthetics, it's Ghost Rider. The cool-for-cool's-sake macho stupidity of a flaming skeleton biker that either fights or works for the Devil is a good fit for the guys behind “Crank.” Despite the ideal directional team, “Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance” would open to weaker box office and somehow earn even weaker reviews than the widely disliked original.

Eight years have passed since Johnny Blaze was first called upon to become the Ghost Rider. He is running from his rather literal demons, hiding out in Eastern Europe and drinking too much. That's when an eccentric monk named Moreau appears to him. The man tells Blaze he can remove his curse, exorcise the demon that forces him to transform, in return for a favor. Blaze is to protect Nadya and her son, Danny. Danny is the half-human off-spring of the same devil that cursed Blaze. The demonic lord is determined to possess the boy's body, which is sturdier then his current form. In order to protect the child from the devil and his henchmen, Johnny Blaze will have to become the Ghost Rider once more.

“Spirit of Vengeance” is not exactly a direct sequel to the poorly received original. Instead, it's a “soft reboot.” The film treats the original in broad strokes. Very little continuity passes between the two films. A few small details –  such as the name, appearance, and general nature of the devil Blaze signs his sole over to – are explicitly different. Overall, the second “Ghost Rider” movie doesn't contradict much from part one but more-or-less stands alone. The reason for this is pretty clear. “Ghost Rider” made money but wasn't very well liked. “Spirit of Vengeance” didn't have much to loose by being different from the original.

Among the changes is a much improved appearance for the fiery anti-hero. The CGI in the first “Ghost Rider” started to age badly the minute the movie hit theaters. The decision to give Ghost Rider a pristine, perfectly white skull gave the character an overly artificial appearance. For “Spirit of Vengeance,” Ghost Rider gets a design that could only be described as crispier. The skull is now charred black. The flames around his skull and pouring out of his sleeves feel hotter and sweatier. His leather jacket also receives a blackened, gooey appearance. The director's grittier aesthetic makes Ghost Rider, a visually ridiculous character, look a little more plausible.

The first “Ghost Rider” had a campy sense of humor that I didn't mind but rubbed many viewers the wrong way. “Spirit of Vengeance” has its own brand of comic relief. The directors bring their trademark absurdity to the story. This is most apparent in the handful of animated sequences that appear in the film. The film opens with Nicolas Cage explaining Johnny Blaze's origin, which includes a bare-ass motorcycle stunt. Later, when a running through a list of the various human forms the devil has taken over the years, Jerry Springer puts in a surprise appearance. These brief animated moments is also the closest Neveldine/Taylor get to the more extreme visual playfulness the two brought to the “Crank” films.

The directors' madcap sense of humor really comes up when Ghost Rider himself appears. When Nicolas Cage begins to change, the camera vibrates around the actor spasmodically. One amazing scene has the rage overtaking Cage. As he tears down the road, the camera lingers on his face, flames engulfing his skull. Another fantastic sequence occurs later, when the demon is leaving Blaze's body. A silhouette of the Rider appears in a white void, the skull vomiting up an endless stream of chains. The directors take Ghost Rider's fiery abilities to their logical conclusion. Johnny Blaze explains what happens when he urinates as the Ghost Rider. Some might consider that detail unnecessary or juvenile. I would argue for the opposite. Seeing Ghost Rider piss a stream of flames was absolutely necessary.

This is not the only example of how Neveldine/Taylor embrace the insanity of the character. The early action scenes in the film are delightfully unhinged. In his first appearance, Ghost Rider is dissolving goons into ash with his molten hot chain. After getting shot in the skull, the Rider vomits a stream of molten lead back into his enemy's face. The sequel grants Ghsot Rider a new ability. Any vehicle he pilots is transformed into a hellish contraption. This is taken to its awesome conclusion when Ghost Rider leaps into the cockpit of a massive land mover. Ghost Rider driving a flaming, lava-spewing Bagger 288 was something I didn't know I needed in my life until I saw it. More than the outrageous action, “Spirit of Vengeance” allows the character to casually violate the laws of physics. He gyrates like an interpretive dancer and, in one amazing scene, floats in the air for no damn reason. It's inspired lunacy.

At the center of all this insanity is Nicolas Cage at his most unhinged. The goofy hand motions and quirks shown in the first movie are discarded in favor of totally bent physicality. In the early half of the film, Johnny Blaze attempts to suppress the Rider by downing pills and booze. This allows Cage to be as erratic as possible. In one utterly mind blowing scene, he pins a minor character and threatens to uncage the beast. Cage screams, cackles, sweats, and goes all the way over the top. Assuming you don't mind casting all actorly good taste aside, it's incredibly impressive. When playing the Ghost Rider, Cage's intensely mad performance goes even further. This is not classically good acting. It is, however, incredibly entertaining.

The first “Ghost Rider” did not have first class bad guys. However, Peter Fonda's Mephisto and Wes Bentley's Blackheart served their hammy purposes. One of the biggest ways “Spirit of Vengeance” is weaker than the original is the bad guys. Ciaran Hinds fills in for Fonda, playing the devil's human form. Wearing a set of bizarre contact lens, Hinds sports an implacable accents. Half-way between Southern gentleman and greasy salesman, Hinds' interpretation of the devil is sleazy and off-putting. The secondary adversary is Blackout, an obscure marvel villain with the ability to suck light out of the room. Johnny Whitworth plays the supervillain as a relatively clueless, entirely amoral psycho-for-hire. Whitworth is having fun, especially in an inspired scene where he eats a Twinkie. However, Blackout still strikes the viewer as a villain with a deeply impractical abilities that isn't very intimidating.

The other corners of the supporting cast are more fun though. Idris Elba, in his second Marvel role, enjoys himself as Moreau. Ostensibly a monk, Moreau loves to indulge in booze, motorcycle, and guns. With his goofy French accent, Elba has a very good time playing the perpetually buzzed character. Cult icons Christopher Lambert and Anthony Stewart Head also appear. Sadly, both have fairly small roles, the movie not utilizing either actor. (Lambert does get covered head-to-toe in weird tattoos which is something, I guess.) Fergus Riordan and Violante Placido are servicable as Danny and Nadya but not very memorable.

As a comic book, Ghost Rider obviously operates as a superhero. Yet the character's adventures also belong to the horror genre. The first “Ghost Rider” only made passing nods to the demonic horror that Ghost Rider revolves around. We had some lost souls and spooky demon faces but that was it. “Spirit of Vengeance” blends horror and action a little better. The reoccurring hellfire certainly feels more visceral. Blackout's ability to rot living flesh, reducing people to mummies in seconds, is mildly disturbing. Mostly, the ending features some cultists in black robes, hanging around dark temples and chanting about demonic possession and human sacrifices. Processions of devil worshipers were a pretty big part of seventies horror comics so it's not to see that on-screen.

For all its nutty heights, there are some serious flaws facing “Spirit of Vengeance.” The relationship between Johnny and Danny is clearly meant to be the emotional heart of the film. However, Cage and Riordan don't have much chemistry. The characters are thrown together quickly, never really getting a reason to care about each other. Another issue is what happens in the end of the second act. Johnny Blaze has the demon successfully removed from his body. So, for the next half-hour, we're watching a “Ghost Rider” movie without Ghost Rider. Obviously, Blaze gets his demonic superpowers back before the end. Yet long scenes of Nic Cage creeping around, unable to help much, suck a lot of energy out of the film. That middle section feels much longer than it should.

Maybe the bad reviews both “Ghost Rider” films received effected the box office for the sequel. “Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance” made a little money but grossed considerably less than its predecessor. Nicolas Cage initially expressed interest in a third film but later changed his mind. Eventually, the character's film rights would revert back to Marvel. The studio would then stick a different version of Ghost Rider on that TV show nobody actually watches. You can't exactly call “Spirit of Vengeance” a good film but, for Neveldine/Taylor fans, it does have some stand-out moments. Ultimately, I have to rank both “Ghost Rider” flicks on about the same level. Both are guilty pleasures for totally different reasons. If given more money and more insanity, this “Ghost Rider” could've been amazing. As it is, “Spirit of Vengeance” is about half a lovably loopy action flick, half a routine experience. [Grade: B-] 

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