Friday, April 13, 2012

Review: Neveldine/Taylor's Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance


In 2007, Marvel comics continued its assault on the world box office with the release of Ghost Rider, a film based on one of their darker properties. In it, a cocky, Evel-Knievel-like stunt rider named Johnny Blaze (portrayed by Nicholas Cage) makes a deal with the devil to save his critically ill father, and in so doing becomes possessed by a demon that, whenever he is in the presence of evil, transforms him into the Ghost Rider, a spirit of vengeance with a flaming skull for a head. The Rider is hungry for the souls of sinners, and has no sense of scale—if you’ve done something shameful, he’ll swallow your soul and send you screaming to Hell.  Of course, Blaze hates being the Devil’s man-bitch and constantly fights against the demon inside (like any good Marvel character), but even in serving Hell, he is doing good work by sending evildoers Down Below.  I described Ghost Rider to my wife Julie as “the Crow meets Spawn,” and if you’re completely unfamiliar with the character that’s close enough for government work.

I missed the first film in the series in the theater and only saw it months later on cable. I’ll be honest; I rather enjoyed it, but I will be the first to admit that I am not a regular reader of the comic—I know little about the mythology of the Ghost Rider, so I can’t speak as to its faithfulness to the source material. As an actor, Nick Cage kind of lives in a box; when he’s playing a nut-job with a heart of gold he does a good job, and the role of Johnny Blaze suited him well.  What I did not realize is that the first film in the franchise (such as it is) apparently was a minor hit at the box office, more than doubling its budget.  I thought the film was fairly poorly received (which it was, if you listen to critics). However, as I’ve said before, I often wonder what critics want out of a superhero movie. Of course there’s going to be cheese, over-the-top heroics, and somewhat stilted dialogue—it’s a trope of the genre.  I’m sure there will be some folks that are dying to illustrate how that’s no excuse, but I respectfully disagree and feel that I expect such things to a degree from superhero movies, and am rather disappointed when they don’t feature goofy one-liners, big explosions, people leaping at helicopters from motorcycles, and such things, even when the hero in question is a brooding hero like Ghost Rider or Wolverine.

That, however, is moot.  The point is, I didn’t realize that the first Ghost Rider film had made enough money to merit a sequel, but apparently it did.  On February 7, 2012, Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor’s Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance hit theaters.  The budget of the sequel was roughly half that of its predecessor, only $57 million and change, which in today’s market is a pittance, and I’m not sure whether such a low budget allowed the film to make a profit, or hurt its earnings by ham-stringing its potential. Hollywood walks a fine line with these things, and it’s hard to say in a situation like this if they were correct.  Spirit of Vengeance has taken in a worldwide box office that has allowed it to make back double its budget, but had the film been given a higher budget, allowing better production values, better visuals, and more time to be spent on it overall, the end result may have been higher quality and thus increased its earnings at the theater.  Again, it’s hard to say.

I missed the boat on the sequel when it was in first-run, but I had a chance to catch it at the local maxi-saver this past Saturday with Julie. Since it’s been a week or so since I posted here, I thought I’d offer up my review. By way of a brief summary: this movie was okay; given that I only paid a buck to see it I wasn’t sorry to catch it on the big screen, but had I paid $7 or $15 to see it, I may have felt cheated. The low production values and choices to completely ignore important elements of its predecessor hamstring the moments of good on the screen, and the story is somewhat trite. It’s kind of a shame to see Marvel’s darker heroes consistently get mistreatment when Nolan’s Batman series has shown us it’s possible to take a dark hero and do him justice on screen.

So here you go: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance.

The Good
There are a few bright points to this film, and they reside in the core cast.  Nick Cage acts in a box—he’s very much a character actor, and while he takes some flak for that I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it, so long as you do it well, and Cage does it well. Nobody gives Jack Nicholson crap for playing Jack all the time, or John Malkovitch for playing Makovich all the time—why does Cage get crap for playing Cage?  He shouldn’t.  Cage is a good choice to play Johnny Blaze, a loosely-sane hero with a penchant for over-the-top antics. He does a good job as the tortured soul struggling with the madness inside.

Peter Fonda has been replaced with Cirian Hinds in this film, playing Roarke, a.k.a. Mephisto. I’ve been a fan of Hinds ever since his role as Caesar in Rome, and I’m pretty sure he can do no wrong in my eyes. He does a good job with the Machiavellian demon who is subtly but brutally evil, and looking for a body in which he can use his powers unfettered by mortal weaknesses. Violante Placido and Fergus Riordan do a good job as Nadya and Danny, the objects of Roarke’s desire, and I rather enjoyed Idris Elba as Moreau, Johnny’s sidekick and spiritual guide in this outing.  There’s an amusing exchange between him and Johnny, where Moreau has been waiting for years to uncork a 2,000-year-old bottle of wine, and when he does and drinks he says, “Not bad!” and passes it to Johnny, who takes a drink, makes a face, and says, “That might be decent on a salad.”  So the interplay between characters in some places is pretty well-done.

I also rather enjoyed seeing Anthony Head and Christopher Lambert on screen; both are always fun.

In the end, I think that the cast, for the most part, did the best job they could with the script with which they had to work.  And the script itself is not all bad—it has some intriguing elements in it, like the revelations about the nature of the demon inside of Johnny, which I won’t reveal as they are spoileriffic.

The Bad
Unfortunately, despite a few good elements, the script for this flick is pretty bad overall.  Not awful, per se, but incredibly “blah,” and somewhat schizophrenic.  It’s also really problematic if you’re a fan of the first film, as it patently ignores important story elements set forth in the first movie. For example, at the end of the first film, Mephisto offers to remove Johnny’s curse, and he refuses; yet, at the beginning of the second film he’s in Europe and we’re told that he’s stuck with this curse that he’s desperate to get rid of ever since he chose to sign his soul away, which, he says, he did out of selfishness.  In the first film, he accidentally sells his soul out of love.

Perhaps even worse than ignoring the first film’s story is the fact that the storyline is just tired. We’ve all seen “son of Satan” stories a million times, which isn’t to say you can’t pull one off.  The problem is, if you’re going to do it, you need to go all out with it, and this film just doesn’t.  The story’s presentation is rote and contains very little to make it stand out from other films featuring similar ideas. It seems almost like the screenwriter just mailed it in after they’d gotten one too many studio executive notes. Indeed, coming from David S. Goyer, I’d expect more.  I mean, this is the guy who gave us Dark City, Blade, and Batman Begins.  To be fair, he’s also given us Blade: Trinity and The Crow: City of Angels, so his track record isn’t 100%.

In any case, the storyline is poor in this film, full of clich├ęs and lazy writing, and ignoring major elements from the first film to set up its story, rather than incorporating such elements within the story.

Finally, the use of Blackout in this film is wasted. He comes off as a second-string player at best, and he doesn’t really accomplish anything as a bad guy, when you know that Satan is standing right behind him in the shadows all the time.

The Ugly
The visuals in this film are as lazy and mailed-in as the screenplay.  While I’m sure part of it is that the projection was pretty awful in the theater where I saw the film, the actual visual style of the film itself is schizophrenic and can’t decide whether it wants to emulate Sam Raimi, Bryan Singer, or David Lynch. The presentation of Blackout’s powers over darkness is randomly psychedelic and cheap, and the use of Ghost Rider’s Penance Stare is absolutely nonexistent.  That’s not to say that the Rider never uses the power…just that there’s no visual to show it working, and since it’s used on glorified extras for the most part, the actors aren’t good enough to really express what the stare does to a person. At times it feels like the directors are trying to emulate the other Marvel films in the style of Raimi or Singer (which are quite divergent directorial styles to begin with), and then someone will use a power or there’ll be a dark effects scene and the whole thing shifts to something out of Wild at Heart. The editing is straightforward and no frills.  There’s very little of any kind of fingerprint or signature on this movie that shows a commitment to the project.  I admit to being utterly unfamiliar with the other efforts of Neveldine/Taylor, so it’s possible that all of their films are like this; I couldn’t say for sure.  A quick scan of their credits reveals pretty much all films that have been universally panned by critics and fans alike.

Again, this isn’t to say that the visuals are bad.  They’re just mediocre.  They are no-frills, straightforward, and utterly un-engaging. Superhero films—even dark ones—need spectacle, and Spirit of Vengeance doesn’t deliver.  Given the low overall budget, my guess is that the whole FX budget was spent on the Rider effects, with precious little left to spend on the rest of the film’s look.

Summary and Conclusion
There is absolutely nothing special about Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance. This film reminds me of the kind of made-for-TV miniseries that used to run on Saturday afternoons during the “Action Pack” hour alongside The Crow: Stairway to Heaven, and Vanishing Son. That is to say, if you’re sitting at home on Saturday afternoon and this comes on cable, there’s worse ways to waste your time, but it was a very poor effort for Marvel, and a shame to see it likely be the nail in the coffin of the Ghost Rider franchise.  I wasn’t sorry to have paid a buck to see it, but had I paid full price first-run I may have been a bit irritated.

I didn’t hate this flick, but there’s very few flicks I hate.  I also very much did not love it.  Catch it on cable for free if you can, or Netflix it if you’ve got nothing better in your queue.

Rating: 2 out of 5 kernels.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed the first one and I like Nick Cage.

    But this is what I had expected from this movie.
    I'll check it out on OnDemand.