Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance: Neveldine, Taylor, and Cage Bring The Heat
I’m trying to pinpoint the moment I realized that Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance was going to be a wildly enjoyable experience. Perhaps it was when Nicolas Cage regains consciousness after getting hit in the stomach with a grenade launcher, only to immediately start hitting on the nurse caring for him. Perhaps it was the animated sequence in which a cartoon Nicolas Cage moons the audience, and an image of Jerry Springer’s face flashes on screen when we’re told the devil walks among us. Perhaps it was as early as Idris Elba, thrown off a cliff, shooting his gun back at his pursuors, in a camera shot that is obviously not done with CGI. Neveldine and Taylor, the creators of the Crank franchise, have a visceral, messy, hilarious, and insane style of filmmaking that suits this franchise far more than the glossy Hollywoodized garbage that was the first installment. They stack the action, they let Cage go bananas, and they create a legitimately fun Ghost Rider film.
An animated sequence reminds us of the origin of Johnny Blaze (Nicolas Cage), who sold his soul to the Devil (Ciaran Hinds) so his father could live. The father died, and Blaze was possessed by a demon who roams the Earth looking to consume the souls of sinners. He’s hiding out in Eastern Europe to stay as far from civilization as possible. Coincidentally (or is it fate?), a young boy (Fergus Riordan) in Eastern Europe with his mother (Violante Placido) gets hunted down by her ex (Johnny Whitworth). Turns out this is no ordinary boy: as a French religious man named Moreau (Idris Elba) informs Blaze, the Devil intends to use this boy as a vessel to rule over the Earth. Blaze must protect the boy from the Devil, as is customary in these types of films. What ensues is a series of demonic possessions, fiery deaths, and motorcycle chases filmed in the trademark chaotic Neveldine/Taylor visual style.
I’m trying to understand why critics aren’t more excited by what Neveldine/Taylor brings to the table. They hadn’t relied on an abundance of CGI until now– and even in Ghost Rider 2, with the exception of the Rider effects and some supernatural deaths, most of the camera shots aren’t CGI enhanced. Their cavalier camerawork, filmed hanging from buildings, flying off of cliffs, hanging onto speeding motorcycles by roller skates, or simply throwing the camera, provides a unique visual style and genuine excitement (as goofy as Crank is, the fight where Jason Statham is obviously hanging out of a real helicopter over Los Angeles is pretty breathtaking). Their editing is certainly speedy and slapdash, but unlike in Michael Bay or Tony Scott films, there’s still a visceral grit to the work. The first Ghost Rider was awful because it was the shiniest, prettiest, and cleanest film about demons from Hell ever made– it was boring. No one can accuse Ghost Rider 2 of being boring; if anything, people might be put off by how in-your-face the filmmaking is. If you don’t like the Crank films, you will likely have similar feelings here.
The story is standard, the characters aren’t new or original, and the dialogue is at times typical; it’s not like Marvel will trust a property to any renegade off the street and give them carte blanche. It checks most of the cliches of the genre off the list. Placido and Riordan in particular aren’t given much to do– Placido must look attractive and concerned and Riordan must toe the line between cute and evil while avoiding precociousness. Neveldine/Taylor does give the full green light to Elba, Whitworth, and especially Hinds to serve up the ham in heaping doses. Elba chugs wine and drunkenly mumbles a French dialect with great gusto, Whitworth gets to snicker evilly, toss his hair, and spout one-liners, and Hinds bugs his eyes out and does an absolutely uncanny impression of an inebriated Rip Torn. Superhero movies, especially ones going for escapism as the primary objective, don’t succeed without these scenery-chewing character actors, and Neveldine/Taylor, with a script that puts focus on action and humor over nuanceand development, cherish every hamfisted moment. As did I.
Yet the Ghost Rider can’t be the Ghost Rider without Nicolas Cage. I have heaped praise upon Cage and his operatic, balls-to-the-wall style of acting several times on this blog. The first Ghost Rider made several key mistakes, not allowing Cage to have scenes of epic struggle or allowing him to play the role of the Rider. This time around, the Rider has personality, quirk, and darkness. He’s like a hyperactive dog sniffing out souls. Cage, meanwhile, is attempting to keep the Rider inside and failing miserably. This, accompanied with some cool effects, creates one of the greatest Nicolas Cage freakouts in the history of cinema– the line “HE’S SCRAPIN’ AT THE DOOR! HE’S SCRAPIN’ AT THE DOOR!” is guaranteed to be a Youtube hit for years to come. Neveldine/Taylor have an abundance of fun demented moments for Cage to chew into, but it’s never forced or clashing with the tone. The film, much like Johnny Blaze, is a vessel for holding uncontrollable demonic madness, unlike any action film you’re likely to see all year. It’s gritty, it’s a bit slapdash, it’s bonkers, like a PG-13 Crank blown up with a Molotov cocktail– exactly what any Neveldine/Taylor/Cage fan wants.