Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance / *½ (PG-13)

Johnny Blaze/Ghost Rider: Nicholas Cage
Nadya: Violante Placido
Roarke: Ciarán Hinds
Ray Carrigan: Johnny Whitworth
Danny: Fergus Riordan
Moreau: Idris Elba
Methodius: Christopher Lambert

Columbia Pictures presents a film directed by Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor. Written by Scott M. Gimple & Seth Hoffman and David S. Goyer. Based on the Marvel Knights comic book character. Running time: 95 min. Rated PG-13 (for intense sequences of action and violence, some disturbing images, and language).

I was originally shocked to learn of a sequel to the obscure Marvel comic book character inspired movie “Ghost Rider”. The first movie was so bad that it astounded me anyone could think there would be a reason to continue the series. Apparently, the first film didn’t under perform at the box office, and its star, Nicholas Cage, has a passion for the character. Upon seeing the trailer for the new “Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance”, I thought that possibly the makers of the original had realized the error of their ways and had fixed some of the problems from the first film. The previews showed both a grittier approach and a less serious one. One of the original film’s flaws was that it seemed to take its ridiculous premise with utter seriousness.

As it turns out, the filmmakers do have much more fun with the character this time around. The whole thing is much grittier than the first movie, too. It just isn’t really a whole lot better. It is better, but it’s not good.

The action has been relocated to Europe, although it mostly takes place on non-descript blacktops. It could be Europe; it could be the American west. The location doesn’t really seem to matter that much. There are a couple of scenic locations in Romania, but I’m not sure if they were accurately identified in the screenplay. I had trouble caring where all this was taking place since it seemed to have no effect on the world at large. Everyone in the movie seems to exist only within the world of the movie.

In the first film the stunt bike rider Johnny Blaze (Cage) was transformed into a spirit of evil, Ghost Rider, with a flaming skull for his head.  In the second film he has gone into hiding in an attempt to repress the evil spirit. He is sought out by a ruffian looking rider named Moreau (Idris Elba, “Luther”), who seems to know more about the whims of God and the Devil, and survival for that matter, than the monks of the monastery in the film’s opening sequence.

Moreau thinks that Blaze is the only person who can protect a mother (Violente Placido, “The American”) and her teenaged boy (Fergus Riordan, “I Want to Be a Soldier”) from the mysterious man who made Blaze into the Ghost Rider. Known as Roarke here, Irish actor Ciarán Hinds (“The Woman in Black”) replaces, as the Devil, the miscast Peter Fonda from the first film.

The rest of the movie involves the bad guys hunting down the boy, whom Roarke wants for reasons that the Devil usually wants a child in an action/horror movie. Alternately, when Roarke’s henchman, Carrigan (Johnny Whitworth, “Limitless”), has the boy, Blaze and his ragtag band must hunt them down. It all culminates in things blowing up real good and opportunities for the Ghost Rider to appear and look equal parts creepy and goofy.

Cage seems to gravitate to the ridiculous more frequently as he gets older. His manic acting style is becoming more of a signature than even Christopher Walken’s. Sometimes it serves him well, as in films like Werner Herzog’s “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans”. But more often than not it lands him material that serves the manic behavior and nothing else. Between this movie and last year’s “Drive Angry” he’s in danger of boxing himself into a 3D hell where he only plays dark, mentally touched heroes who can summon the fire and flames of hell only to show off the fire and flames of hell in faked three dimensions.

The direction by the team of Neveldine/Taylor, as they chose to be credited, does not distinguish itself above any of the other b-grade action dreck they’ve done before in movies like “Jonah Hex” and “Gamer”. This one does have more of the manic energy that they made their mark with in the infinitely more entertaining “Crank”. There is one sequence where Blaze drives off on his motorcycle in an effort to suppress the Ghost Rider demon from emerging. Cage’s face contorts and CGI effects show portions of the Ghost Rider skull popping in and out of view. This has the same comedic quality as some of the hyper sequences in “Crank”.

This directing team also has a little more fun with the Rider’s abilities than the first film did. One of the coolest aspects of the Rider is his ride, which looks like a motorcycle forged in hell. When the Rider is on it, the tires burst into flame and leave a flaming trail behind them. Apparently any vehicle the Rider commands turns into an instrument of flame. At one point, the Rider jumps into the cockpit of a huge industrial digger in a rock quarry. With the Rider at the controls, every scoop and track on the behemoth bursts into flame, making for a fairly impressive effects sequence.

There are some people this material will appeal to, no matter how poorly it is made. Folks who don’t care if their movies are dumbed down into nothing more than a skeleton plot upon which to hang the action might notice an improvement in the filmmaking quality between “Spirit of Vengeance” and the first “Ghost Rider”. I, however, always liked a little more meat on my superheroes, even when I was reading comic books as a child. The upcoming summer season promises some pretty high functioning superhero fare. Be wise and save your money for those movies. Even if they aren’t successful, they’ll be starting from a more ambitious plateau than “Ghost Rider”. I suppose when you start out in the pits of hell, it’s a little too much to ask to rise above ground level. 

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