Monday, February 20, 2012

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance - Theatrical Review


Release Date: February 17, 2012

Nicolas Cage is an enigma to me anymore. I still kind of like the guy, he hasn't made it to my official list of actors to avoid just yet but I'll be damned if I can make heads or tails of his decisions when it comes to projects to work on and his latest attempt only adds to the confusion.

Review Vital Stats:
Theater: AMC 30 at the Block in Orange
Time: 12:01 am February 17, 2012
Projector Type: Digital 3D
Film Rating: PG-13
Film Runtime: 1 hr 34 min
Studio: Columbia

Loves: Sadly nothing
Likes: Comic book movies
Neutral: Nicolas Cage, directing duo Neveldine & Taylor, the Ghost Rider character
Hates: The first Ghost Rider movie
Fact: Nicolas Cage wanted to be the next Superman at one point

I don't really remember much of the first film beyond Nicolas Cage being in it, some fairly uninspired special effects, a snooze-fest of a story and of course that I hated it. I never really had any sort of attachment to the character (if you can call him that) and never really saw the appeal either. Sure he looks cool, a burning skull riding a burning motorcycle, but it takes more than some neat visuals to win me over which that first film did not do. I hesitate to call it a horrible film since I remember so little of it but any time I cannot recall a movie very well (which is a rarity for me) is never a good sign. With the announcement of the directing duo Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, the two guys responsible for the fun and energetic Crank series as well as the dreadful Gamer, my interest level perked up a little. Say what you will about their style, when they make a movie they almost always go for broke and that is just what I think this series needed, a good kick in the ass. Did it deliver? Yes on some accounts but mostly no I'm afraid.

Some time after the events of the first film where Johnny Blaze (Nicolas Cage) had previously sold his soul to the devil, who had taken the form of a man named Roarke (Ciaran Hinds), and became the vessel for the spirit of vengeance known as The Rider, we find Johnny running from his previous life in hopes of finding a way to lift his curse. Opportunity comes a knockin when an agent of god named Moreau (Idris Elba) shows up at his door step and offers him a deal. His mission is to locate a boy named Danny (Fegus Riordan) who has been marked by the devil and deliver him to a quarry full of monks who have the power to protect him and his mother Nadya (Violante Placido) from the agents of evil that hunt them. If he is able to complete this task then he will have his curse lifted and be a free man once again.

The Rider may look cool but is that enough to make a real character?

The phenomenon known as the "requel" (both a prequel and a reboot in one) is still in its infancy at the moment. We had a small taste of what is to come from last years X-Men movie and the insurmountably improved Incredible Hulk from a few years back. Later this year we will have what looks to be the definitive requel with The Amazing Spider-Man. So this looks to be the go to device for movie studios at the moment to help right the wrongs of past failures and I have a feeling this is going to become more and more commonplace as time moves forward. GR: Spirit of Vengeance however is not the exact definition of a requel, it is in the form of a sequel and doesn't exactly pretend the first film didn't exist but it certainly gives the audience enough back story and information so that audiences unfamiliar with the first film won't miss anything. The question then becomes whether or not Ghost Rider, a film that was for the lack of a better term...trash, deserves or even warrants a requel attempt? I guess that really depends on how much love you have for the comic book the film is based off of.

Personally I could really give a shit. The Ghost Rider comic book character always felt as though he was created to appeal to a certain crowd, one of which I am clearly not a part of. What or who that crowd is I dare not presume, but for someone like me who likes most super hero characters I never found him to be very interesting. His outfit always reminded me of the bounty hunter from yet another Nicolas Cage movie from his youth Raising Arizona, where that character also rode a motorcycle and seemed nigh invincible. The rest of the look for the character, i.e. the flaming skull, is pretty neat looking and all but is a double edged sword where I am concerned. There is no personality to him, he is just a tool to serve out justice and nothing more. Compared to other more three dimensional super heroes he just doesn't have what it takes to keep up with the big boys which is why he is not really considered to be a part of the upper ranks of the Marvel universe I would gather. The main attraction to the character is how he deals out his justice by staring into a person's soul and judging them on all their past indescrepencies. If that is enough for you then so be it, I usually need a little more than a neat gimmick and a lot of flames to make me care one way or the other.

Johnny chats with the son of the devil.

However, simply disliking the actual hero of the film does not have to be a deal breaker. I was never really very fond of either Iron Man or Captain America before they landed on the big screen. Through some tender loving care on the script side of things and a great deal of luck in the casting department both of those films really turned me around and shifted my point of view to a more favorable outlook on their respective heroes. The first Ghost Rider was missing both of those requirements and seemed to drop off the face of the Earth after it was released with no one really giving a dam. Despite a horrible first start though it wasn't out of the realm of possibilities that those problems couldn't be addressed here in the requel. This quasi-sequel was close to solving both issues but it just didn't have that spark, that thing that brings everything together in a satisfying manner. It got a lot of the pieces right this time around but it stumbled pretty badly while reaching for the finish line.

To my first point, GR: Spirit of Vengeance fails pretty miserably when it comes to its story. Hey, I understand that not every super hero movie tale has to be gold but it didn't even seem like the writers tried. Apparently it took three writers to come up with a plot involving the devil trying to rule the world. Really? If that isn't yawn inducing enough for you then how about some bits of story surrounding the main character who wants to be rid of his awful curse. This had the potential to add some much needed character growth to Johnny Blaze who has been carrying around a lot of baggage on his shoulders. The way it is handled here is almost a carbon copy of the sequence of events in Superman 2 where he gives up his power, is happy to be human, encounters a situation where he immediately regrets losing his power and eventually realizes he needs that power which of course he gets back shortly after being freed from it. That just screams of someone having no idea what kind of arc to give their main character and comes off as both pointless and extremely lazy in the end. I haven't even mentioned how ridiculously easy it was for him to break the curse in the first place which had a lot of build up only to be concluded with a quick scene of Nicolas Cage rolling around in pain for a few seconds. For something that took so long to get to and had a lot of people worried for his safety it wasn't that bad at all.

The special effects are much improved this time around.

So yeah, the story isn't much better this time around. That leads into my second point about the casting for our hero. Nicolas Cage has over the years become a very strange actor to figure out who carries around with him a lot of accolades and awards from films past yet has just as many horrible stigmas attached to his filmography. I have given up trying to figure out what the hell is going on with the dude anymore. In a process of elimination I have narrowed down the one key ingredient I need in order to enjoy a Nicolas Cage performance which is his level of crazy, just how bat shit insane did the filmmakers allow him to go. Well, if you are a fan of crazy Nic Cage like I am (Kick-Ass, Bad Lieutenant) then I think you will agree that his second go around in the title role of Ghost Rider is a bizarre success...sometimes.

There are a handful of scenes where you can tell the motivation provided by the directors was to just let their star go ballistic. Probably my favorite moment in the film has Nicolas Cage interrogating some hapless thug where he is furiously trying to keep the Rider at bay. You see, Johnny Blaze is at constant odds with the Rider, he has very little control over when the Rider appears and when he does he has no control at all(hints towards Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are none to subtle). So he is using this as a way to scare the crap out of this guy and what transcends next is a truly inspired bit of acting by Cage. It had me howling in laughter (as well as the other audience members from what I could tell) with his change in pitch and his crazy howls of pleasure as he just scares the shit out of the guy he is threatening. It was a strange scene indeed but it was also one of the rare moments in the movie where I actually started to have a good time.

Decay man isn't quite as cool as he first seemed.

That's where the directors Neveldine & Taylor shine though. Their signature style of filmmaking, while nauseating at times, is without a doubt energetic and gives the film a bit of a pulse that it truly needed. Anyone familiar with their other work will feel immediately at home here with their odd choice of camera placement during action scenes and probably one of the most bizarre scenes I had the pleasure of seeing in quite a while where Cage is riding full speed on his bike and trying to fight off the transformation into the Rider. It really needs to be seen, words cannot do it justice. Those cover the more mundane aspects to the movie though, where I found them to be the most influential is in an area that was totally lacking in the previous film. Despite my many complaints about the character of Ghost Rider I cannot deny the fact that I actually enjoyed every single moment he was on screen this time around.

From the re-introduction to the Rider all the way up to the finale, I got the feeling that someone finally decided to have fun with the material. You have yourself an angel of vengeance whose job it is to punish the wicked and judge their souls while also carrying the ability to possess any object he comes in contact with and use it as a weapon. The possibilities are almost limitless when you start to think about it and although I don't think they ever truly went as far as they could at times, I was pleasantly entertained by what they did offer up. Some of the more standout moments include the first encounter between the Rider and some bad guys where he seems to be just toying with them as he picks them off one at a time and probably my favorite part of the film where he takes one of those giant rock quarry cutters and possesses it and proceeds to wipe out dozens of bad guys while laughing maniacally. The effects in all the scenes with the Rider were likewise fairly impressive which was another huge step over the original. Even with all the other problems with the film I think most will find some entertainment value with all the Rider sequences.

The Rider is ready to judge the souls of those responsible for f**king up his movies.

There are some other general problems with the movie though unfortunately beyond the aforementioned plot and character issues. Probably the biggest disappointment is the lack of any interesting villains. We get two this time, one of them being the devil who doesn't really do much other than make phone calls and run away (I am serious by the way) and his henchman Carrigan (Johnny Whitworth) who was fun at times but his ultimate fate which grants him the power of decay (the ability to decay things...duh!) was more underwhelming than what it initially seemed. Then you have the completely pointless visit to the rock monks (they live in rocks...and their monks) where we meet the head monk played by...wait for it....Christopher Lambert! Where the hell has that guy been? Anyways, most of everything that transpires there is rendered mute by the end of the film and just felt like another pit stop to mediocrity provided by the clueless writing team.

Yes, this movie has some serious flaws and problems abound almost everywhere you look. I want to say though that I think there is some fun to be had with the film. It comes down to your point of view though. If you go into it looking for another homerun knocked out of the park by Marvel then you will be sorely disappointed. It in no way, shape or form carries the same level of quality that studio's more mainstream super hero movies have. While it is a shame that somebody couldn't find the right story to tell with this character (it has all the qualities to make a unique sort of horror/super hero film hybrid if they wanted to go that route) and has some of the lamest villains to come around in a long time, it still has enough energy to its action scenes and Nicolas Cage provides one of his signature crazyman performances to provide for a moderate amount of enjoyment. For me when recommending something I always ask myself, regardless of all the problems the film has, did I have fun watching it? Yes I did. But is it something I think I will want to revisit? Probably not. So I suppose my recommendation is this, if you are a fan of the comic book and/or Nicolas Cage I suggest you hold off during its theatrical run and...




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