Review Scoring Chart - 10: Masterpiece; 9: Outstanding; 8: Very Good; 7: Good; 6: Above Average; 5: Average; 4: Below Average; 3: Bad; 2: Awful; 1: Reprehensible; 0: Non- Functional.
GHOST RIDER: SPIRIT OF VENGEANCE
Dir: Mark Neveldine, Brian Taylor
Stars: Nicolas Cage, Idris Elba, Violente Placido, Ciarán Hinds, Johnny Whitworth
Running Time: 95mins
Nicolas Cage has in recent years become a fixture of Hollywood's first quarter release schedule, which most likely speaks to the actor's growing awareness that his fans are no longer - if they ever were - looking for nuanced performances in high quality productions, so much as out to satisfy their fix of Caged intensity best demonstrated in disasters like The Wicker Man remake and deranged masterpieces like Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call - New Orleans.
The problem is that Cage seems to have become increasingly bored with delivering the same schtick time and time again in the same kind of high concept movies. Last year's Drive Angry disappointed despite a concept tailor made for bringing out the full spectrum of Cage's boggle-eyed nuttiness, while Season Of The Witch was an exercise in medieval torture for everyone except the characters on-screen. Once again, an early month of the new year brings a new high concept Cage movie promising trashy greatness, but threatening to continue a run of form stuck at simple trash.
On the plus side, despite the original Ghost Rider movie's less than glowing reception, this is a character Cage is obviously passionate about. He's a known comic book junkie who has repeatedly restated his desire to do right by the character on the big screen, while bringing in directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, the pair responsible for one of the few successful high-concept actioners of recent years with Crank, seems to indicate a knowledge of what audiences are looking for from this particular series. The heavy marketing focus on the titular character pissing flames only reinforces that assurance.
Cage's passion shines through Spirit Of Vengeance, with his line delivery modulated just far enough on the loony scale to smack fans right in the sweet spot. There's an almost total absence of wit in the script, but Cage's drawl, somehow very dry and wildly over the top at the same time, elevates each zinger to an art form. 'Danny is only good thing I ever did,' explains Nadya, the female lead, at one point. 'That being the case,' Johnny Blaze (Cage) replies, 'We'd better make sure he doesn't turn into the Anti-Christ.' It's one of many bafflingly misjudged exchanges which Cage escalates to greatness. The quality of the writing sadly doesn't improve for dialogue between the other characters, where its deficiencies are more cruelly exposed. Only a sight gag involving a twinkie earns a laugh on its own merits.
If Cage brings entertainment value to moments which by all rights should have none, Idris Elba as French monk Moreau turns out to be an equally canny piece of casting. The character doesn't have any memorable lines or even any particular purpose in the plot, but as the Gallic version of the Ghost Rider, Elba has fabulous fun overcooking the accent and bouncing off Cage in a contest to claim the title of Hell's Hammiest.
If only the rest of the movie lived up to its two leads. High concept movies are fun, except that the writers tend to forget that even the most exciting one-line story needs to be fleshed out to some degree to deliver a fulfilling cinematic experience. Spirit Of Vengeance's plot doesn't evolve in any way from the moment Moreau lays it out to Blaze: a boy needs protecting from the Devil Incarnate, and if Blaze succeeds he will be granted freedom from his curse. It's generic to start with, in fact lifted almost verbatim from Drive Angry, and has nothing to offer in the interim between Blaze accepting the mission and the end credits. The difference between great trash cinema and real trash is that the greats manage to do something unexpected with their simple ingredients, whereas lesser movies lay them out on the table but neglect the need to do any actual cooking.
Crank was a great example of 'good' trash because its central idea - a poisoned assassin has to keep his heart rate up to stave off death - was versatile enough to allow the writers to indulge in a ridiculous game of one-upsmanship between increasingly insane methods of keeping the eponymous character's adrenaline pumping. In comparison, Spirit Of Vengeance's plot (which, incidentally, has nothing at all to do with its subtitle) is overfamiliar to the point of being a default setting for this kind of movie. Humour might have salvaged it, and Cage and Elba give it their best, but the movie actually appears to take its religious trappings seriously, leading to a recycling of not only a familiar concept, but featuring same old scenes fleshing it out.
Worst still is how Neveldine and Taylor cannot even get the action right, with their Crank aesthetic here coming off as obtuse in its refusal to aim the camera with any sense of clarity or geography. Fast-cut staccato editing has long been an unwelcome and exhausting trick for artificially generating excitement for some years now, and is no less infuriating here. It worked in Crank because that movie was defined by its anarchic, violent humour. Spirit Of Vengeance, a movie whose plot demands to be taken with a modicum of unjustifiable seriousness, is only broken by such a haphazard approach to filmmaking, made all the more confusing by the movie's heavy reliance on near-identical desert locations.
Despite Cage's best efforts, it's yet another first quarter flop, a marginal improvement on Season Of The Witch but lacking even Drive Angry's mild amusements. When Johnny Blaze decries the price he must pay for his power, Cage's fans no doubt feel the same way: even watching the actor have fun for a change isn't worth suffering through an hour and a half of this kind of punishment. That's a real curse. [ 4 ]
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