Sunday, February 19, 2012

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance - Dirs. Mark Neveldine & Brian Taylor (2012)

Ghost Rider isn't one of Marvel's most well-known characters, but he is one of the coolest looking ones. Inspired by the popularity of Evel Knievel, Ghost Rider was created in 1972 as stunt rider Johnny Blaze, who is transformed into a fiery spirit of vengeance after making a pact with the devil to save the life of his mentor. During the grim and gritty era of the early-90's, the Rider was remade into a spiky leather wearing biker named Danny Ketch. The original Ghost Rider film featured a combination of both characters as played by the shamanic assassin of acting Nicolas Cage. You'd think it would be difficult to screw up a movie about a flaming skeleton on a badass motorcycle, but somehow Sony did thanks in part to the pedestrian direction of Mark Steven Johnson. The bane of comic book fans everywhere, Johnson also wrote and directed the poorly received Daredevil.

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance is Sony's attempt at a mulligan, dusting off an old script by David S. Goyer. Part reboot/part sequel, Spirit of Vengeance glances over the Rider's origins and is connected only tangentially to the original picture. Cage is back as Johnny Blaze, who has been living a nomadic existence in Eastern Europe. He is roped into protecting Nadya (Violante Placido) and her son Danny (Fergus Riordan), who turns out to be the spawn of Satan himself. Comic readers know that the Marvel version of the devil is Mephisto, played in the first Ghost Rider by Peter Fonda. Here, it's Ciarán Hinds in the role and he's simply known as Roark.

Roark needs the boy for a ritual that will allow him to walk unfettered on Earth. To defeat Ghost Rider and capture Danny, Roark transforms a nasty mercenary named Carrigan (Johnny Whitworth) into a creature fans know as Blackout. In his new form, Carrigan looks like a member of the Edgar Winter Group and has the power to sap light around his victims and decay anything he touches. Well, anything except a Twinkie and steering wheels because he still has no problems driving.

The first Ghost Rider was a slick looking blockbuster, but suffered from unimaginative action sequences. These problems should have been corrected since the sequel has the directing duo of Neveldine/Taylor behind the wheel. The filmmakers behind the Crank series utilized adrenaline junkie techniques during the shooting of Spirit of Vengeance. They bungee jumped off rooftops and performed handheld shots on rollerblades. Somehow, their set pieces aren't any more exciting than those of the previous movie or of any other generic action film playing on late night cable. It's mostly Ghost Rider whipping his chain around and burning armies of henchmen into ash. Only rarely do Neveldine/Taylor inject a bit of excitement into Spirit of Vengeance. There's a cool shot of Idris Elba flying backwards in slow motion off a cliff side while firing his shotgun and a sequence where Ghost Rider turns a gigantic construction machine into a demonic engine of death. Neveldine/Taylor also utilize some cool effects for Carrigan's blackout powers by switching to a distorted fish eye lens. They never make the most of the exotic locations either. The film was shot on location in Turkey and Romania where the setting could have lent a classic Italian Giallo flavor to the proceedings. Instead, Neveldine/Taylor shoot in such a manner that Spirit of Vengeance looks like a cheap Sci-Fi Channel movie-of-the-week.

The special effects used to create Ghost Rider have improved. He's grimier with a smoked out skull and a charred leather jacket. He's less intimidating the second time around. This is mostly due to Cage's motion capture work as he decided to have the Rider sway back and forth as if he were at a Bauhaus concert. Also missing is the Penance Stare, Ghost Rider's ability to turn his victims into a desiccated husk by forcing them to feel the pain they've caused a hundredfold. Johnson used fire and brimstone to capture the Penance Stare. Neveldine/Taylor just have Ghost Rider stare lovingly into the eyes of his enemies.

Cage fails to bring the Rider's alter-ego to life too. At least, he was eating jelly beans from a martini glass and listening to the Carpenters before. Here, he's just plain old Nic Cage and not maniacally hammy Nic Cage. His unique acting style can work if fired with precision like a hollow point bullet through a high caliber sniper rifle. So far, the only auteur to truly harness the frenzy of Nic Cage is Werner Herzog. Neveldine/Taylor surprisingly keep Cage tightly on a leash. There's no sign of the cartoony Cage that has become popular YouTube fodder ("Not the bees!"). The one time he does freak out is during an interrogation scene where Blaze threatens to release the Rider.

Picking up the slack in the ham department is Ciarán Hinds, who realizes how ridiculous it all is and plays it accordingly. Criminally underused is comic book mainstay Idris Elba as Moreau, a hard-drinking French priest, who mostly serves to spout exposition at convenient moments. There's also Christopher Lambert as a tattooed, sword-wielding monk and Buffy alumnus Anthony Stewart Head as another monk.

Was I expecting a masterpiece from Spirit of Vengeance? No. At the very least, I hoped for something similar to Punisher: War Zone, where the sequel upped the action and stood as an enjoyable B-movie. Unfortunately, there's nothing here, except a thin, poorly conceived plot that barely covers the scant eighty-plus minute run time.

Rating: * (*****)

No comments: