Sunday, February 19, 2012

BLAZE OF NOT-SO GLORY: While flawed, “Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance” Is Superior To Its Predecessor

When plans were announced to make the Marvel Comics character “Ghost Rider” (created by Gary Freidrich, Mike Ploog and Roy Thomas) into a film, I was skeptical.  When Nicholas Cage was announced to play Johnny Blaze, I became even more so. When the film was finally released in 2007, my skepticism was well justified. What should have been, in hyperbolic parlance, a “balls to the wall”, “in your face”, fire and brimstone actioner, was instead a Disneyesque, watered down version of the story of Blaze, who enters a deal with Mephistopheles to exchange his soul for the life of Blaze’s father. While it made decent box office, it was poorly received by critics.

“Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance”, directed by Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, is an anomaly in cinema in that it is a stealth-reboot: It stands alone without referencing its predecessor while retaining Cage in the title role. Even if it were a sequel, it would have been that other rarity: the sequel that is superior to the original.

The Ghost Rider is called upon by a warrior named Moreay (Idris Elba, perhaps the most entertaining performance in the entire film) to protect the Gypsy Nadya (Violenta Placido) and her pre-adolescent son Danny (Fergus Riordan) from his father, the Devil himself, Roarke (the character, played by Ciaran Hinds, takes the place of Peter Fonda’s Mephistopheles in this new continuity). “Spirit of Vengeance” succeeds by taking what could have been another entry into the tired “Anti-Christ” genre and making it entertaining by refusing to take itself seriously. Given that tone, one can see why Cage was kept. His bizarre shtick of quirky pauses and ticks, usually a liability in other roles, are perfectly at home in an environment in which the world is through a lens of “Dante’s Inferno” meeting “The Looney Tunes”. It’s a cartoon film come to life, with ham fisted acting (Hinds) juxtaposed against pathos (Placido, Cage in quieter moments). The films also has some pleasant tongue in cheek additions to the cast, like Anthony (Stewart) Head as part of a secret organization called to “watch” over the boy, or Christopher Lambert as a zealot priest priest who is part of an ancient order that resides on holy ground, bringing to bear a curved blade (a scimitar in this case) to behead someone. Johnny Whitworth also brings some menace to his role of Ray Carrigan, who also makes an unfortunate deal with Roarke. The action sequences are, like the film itself, over the top. However it also has that rarity in film, a balance between the heavy and the light. When the film threatens to take itself too seriously, a bit of often perverse levity is thrown in.  This time allowed to play the character in full, Cage brings a smart ass dimension to the character of Ghost Rider himself, his very stance a giant “F*** you” to those he is about to punish (a scene that had been shown in the teaser trailer is expounded on for a couple seconds more in the film, and it defines the character beautifully).  Interestingly, a couple of times writing this review I have written Johnny “Cage” instead of “Blaze”; not due to any love of Mortal Kombat but because I get the impression that Cage is essentially playing his quintessential cinematic self – the same type of character he played in the more experimental, quirky phase of his early career. In one sense, he seems to be sleepwalking through his role. On the other, this persona is exactly what the character needs. Cage is Blaze, and vice versa.

The direction was somewhat disjointed, as though two different films were made and mashed together into one piece. There are times, especially in the first half hour, where the shaky cam effect is overused to the point of dizziness; even in scenes wherein the characters are standing still. Further, a couple of moments go on a lot longer than they should (the sequence initially establishing Ghost Rider’s powers is especially egregious) while others are at least somewhat entertaining (Blaze’s transformation into the Rider mid-ride as an example). By the last third of the film, the direction becomes more tight and focused, leading to a very resounding, though made for TV movie or cable, climax.

“Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance” is not going to make anyone forget the upcoming super-hero releases of 2012. However, it is a film that provides an entertaining hour and a half-plus and more than makes up for the deficiencies of the film that preceded it. The film may not blaze across the box office, but it will light your fire.