Monday, February 27, 2012

Man on Film: Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance

When word came out that the team of Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor were going to helm the second Ghost Rider film, I nearly shat myself from excitement. Neveldine/Taylor and Cage? Sign me up. This combination sets expectations for sheer insanity.

Sheer insanity was not achieved, at least not fully.

It seems like this starts at the top with Avi and Ari Arad. Apparently Todd Farmer and Patrick Lussier (the Drive Angry scribes) were asked to present a treatment for what was then just Ghost Rider 2, and Avi Arad passed because it was too violent. More details on that here (along with the full treatment in .pdf form).

Given this information, one has to imagine that Neveldine and Taylor were likely not allowed to go balls to the wall, which is what were were all hoping for. There are certainly moments that are absurd, over-the-top, and funny, but sadly those moments do not come as frequently as one would hope. If you start at the scene where Violante Placido's character Nadya takes Johnny Blaze to that nightclub and go forward through the big battle with the arms dealers and Ray Carrigan*, you've got a stretch of crazy-ass freak-outs, an almost drugged up sequence of Johnny on his motorcycle trying to keep The Rider under wraps, and then an insane fight sequence in which he takes out what equates to a platoon of mercenaries using large scale construction equipment that is engulfed in hell-fire. Over the course of these five to ten minutes, a glimpse of what your wildest dreams had hoped for is granted.

*It was really weird to see Johnny Whitworth in something that wasn't Empire Records (a movie that you'd have to be between the ages of 29 and 33 to actually like, as you'd have to have been a teen at the time to have nostalgia working in the film's favor, and even then it's a tall order to fill). It was weirder yet to see him hamming it up as the henchman. 

Unfortunately, the movie isn't all the way there.

The beautiful Violante Placido
On the acting front, you've got Nic Cage oscillating between Bangkok Dangerous and Bad Lieutenant. While he's The Rider, he actually does some pretty sweet physical mannerism work that elicited some chuckles (intentionally), and his efforts to keep The Rider at bay were just crazy enough. While Idris Elba is doing a weird French accent, his energy is actually in lock and step with what Neveldine and Taylor are going for, and his love for guns and wine is at least a little comic relief. The beautiful Violante Placido (the stunner in The American) isn't given a lot to do, but for eye-candy they could have done significantly worse. You've also got what equates to a Giles cameo from Anthony Stewart Head, whose lines could easily have been from the first season or two of Buffy, and marked the first time he'd popped up in something I'd seen since the 2006 Woody Allen film Scoop. There is also Christopher Lambert--with his entire face tatted up--making you long to see him wielding a broadsword even if he is wearing the robe of a monk. Sure, Lambert was never the most expressive presence on the screen, but Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor have a knack for bringing back familiar faces that you haven't seen for ages. As far as the villain is concerned, Ciarán Hinds is perfectly suitable, at least when considering what the role called for, and he does have the requisite gravitas to make Roark a believable representation of the Devil.

Thankfully, the second installment is a marked improvement over the ghastly first part directed by Mark Steven Johnson, the man behind such gems as (in order) Simon Birch, Daredevil, and When In Rome. He also wrote Jack Frost--the Michael Keaton one. To qualify that resume as anything less than horrifying is underselling what he has done. If you need a reminder as to what depths his films sink, here:

That happened.

Need more? Here's something even worse:

Obviously, the guy who wrote and directed that horseshit should never have been allowed near any comic book film. The geniuses who brought us the Crank franchise, however, can do whatever the hell they want to. This includes an R-rated Ghost Rider film. Really, the entire Marvel Knights catalog should be R-rated. Anything less is doing a disservice to the source material. Ultimately, that's where this film falls short. It isn't insane enough. There are glimmers of insanity, but they just remind you what you wished you had been seeing through the normal parts.

For non-Nic Cage fans, this probably isn't a movie you're going to seek out. Anyone who's been coming here for long enough knows that this writer falls into the fan category. For those keeping track at home, this marks eleven straight live-action Nicolas Cage films seen in the theater, as I'm not going to penalize myself for not living in one of the markets that Trespass played in for roughly a handful of days. March 16th marks the open of the likely to be rough Seeking Justice, but perhaps it will surprise. More importantly, any Cage is good Cage. At the very least, this is significantly better than the first one--which is actually the streak-breaker for me--a film that would have worked much better for me if it had simply been Johnny Blaze talking about the crazy shit he could do as The Ghost Rider. The only aspect of the first film that I wish had been carried over was his love of The Carpenters, but Neveldine and Taylor made sure to have the music playing while people were driving be hilarious, which at least makes inroads towards recompense for me. At the very least, they give us what we've always really wanted: urinary flame thrower.

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