Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
March 2012

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance

Johnny Blaze: Abstract Superhero

Neveldine and Taylor put their stamp on 'Ghost Rider' in the imaginative-yet-awful 'Spirit of Vengeance'

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance
Columbia Pictures
Director: Neveldine/Taylor
Screenplay: Scott M. Gimple, Seth Hoffman and David S. Goyer, based on the Marvel comic
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Ciarán Hinds, Violante Placido, Idris Elba, Fergus Riordan and Johnny Whitworth
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 35 minutes
(out of four)

The randomness of the Neveldine/Taylor filmmaking style is a double-edged sword. On one hand it's gloriously anarchic in a way that's genuinely admirable - and immediately distinguishable. (I could even draw a Godard parallel here, but I'm afraid I might get electroshocked.) On the other hand, sometimes the effect is that the movie in question doesn't even seem like a professional undertaking, instead the product of some amateur with a handheld video camera and vague ideas about style.

Both sides are on full display in Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, the directing duo's latest (and most high-profile) offering. It is, for both better and worse, unlike any other superhero movie we've seen, though the worse tends to overshadow the better. That is, if it can even put into the same category as other comic-book flicks. The thing is, this isn't so much a Ghost Rider movie as it is a collection of abstract concept art inspired by Ghost Rider. Sure, there's a story in there somewhere, but it's all in the service of expressionistic experimentation.

The distorted depth-of-field, oblique angles and hyperactive pacing are all to be expected from the creators of Crank, Crank: High Voltage and Gamer. But this time around, the visual inventiveness takes an even more prominent role. The directors (real names: Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor) have a grab-bag of tricks and experiments at their disposal in Spirit of Vengeance, and they filter them into the storytelling seemingly at random. It's borderline stream-of-consciousness at times. When an idea strikes them, they go with it. Whether that's shifting to animation here and there, or presenting dreamlike interpretations of the ongoing action, or completely changing the film's visual aesthetic for one character's point of view, or repeating absurd standalone sight gags, Neveldine and Taylor will try it.

At the very least, it seems like they were allowed to do their own thing - that they were given, well, maybe not carte blanche, but something close to it, anyway. Traditionally, a studio would be irresponsible to allow filmmakers like this to do this to a comic-book franchise.

Hell with tradition. Hell with responsibility.

The overall result may just be a mosaic of disconnected pop-art pieces - a little playful, a little avant-garde, a little satirical, a little distracting - but it's certainly, shall we say, a personal statement. Which I don't think could be said of this film's predecessor, Mark Steven Johnson's soulless Ghost Rider from back in 2007.

Which isn't to say I think Spirit of Vengeance is a success. On the contrary, there's so much that's bad about it, I feel half-guilty even awarding it two stars. It's just that the film seems so brazenly uninterested in the formula imposed on it by the screenplay - and so gleefully rebellious in its repeated attempts to break up the narrative with bursts of arbitrary, self-contained cinematic flair - that I can't help but judge it on those terms. I'll put it like this - I liked the film's audacity, if not the film itself.

This sequel (loose as it may be) finds Nicolas Cage returning to the role of Johnny Blaze, still cursed by the pact he made with the Devil (Ciarán Hinds), hiding out in the middle of nowhere in a state of suicidal solitude, fearful of the Rider he transforms into whenever he's in the presence of evil. His reclusiveness doesn't stop Moreau (Idris Elba) - a wine-loving, God-fearing warrior for justice - from finding Johnny and commissioning him for one last ride, this time to find and protect a soon-to-be 13-year-old boy named Danny (Fergus Riordan).

Danny holds the utmost importance to the Devil - who in human form goes by the name "Roarke" - who has a bounty hunter of his own, Carrigan (Johnny Whitworth), sent out on orders to retrieve the boy. Caught in the middle of those hunting Danny is his mother, Nadya (Italian actress Violante Placido, so magnificently introduced to U.S. audiences in the drastically underrated The American), who once upon a time made her own little deal with the devil. (Of the coital variety.)

The degree to which Neveldine and Taylor truly care about the goings-on of the story are made clear during the "on the road" portion of the movie, with Johnny, Nadya and Danny (and, eventually, Moreau) on the run from Carrigan and Roarke. There's clearly meant to be a budding Terminator 2-like relationship between Johnny and Danny, but it's underdeveloped to the point of being almost irrelevant. Which would be OK except for the fact that said relationship is crucial to the entire third act. Theoretically, anyway.

It's no secret that Nicolas Cage makes a lot of bad movies. A frustrating amount. Especially these days. But as I watched Spirit of Vengeance, I was also reminded why I kinda love the guy. Even in a movie that is failing on so many levels, Cage is still invested, throwing wrinkles and inflections into his delivery and body language that we wouldn't get from another actor. This may not be a great performance or anything, but at least it's got some life running through it. Which basically exemplifies the movie as a whole. No, it's not particularly good - but it's certainly got a pulse, and some creative juice to spare. Maybe next time Neveldine and Taylor will put all that energy to better use.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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