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