Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (2012): Nic Cage is el Fuego
The last time we saw Nic Cage here at The Lair, everyone's favorite over-actor (that's not William Shatner) was on the run from the devil after escaping Hell in 2010's Drive Angry. What a difference a couple of years makes.... And a sequel for that matter. This time instead of avoiding Old Scratch, he's pursuing a headlong course right at him in the surprising sequel to 2007's Ghost Rider. After the fist film flopped, and for good reason, there was little hope that Cage could spin the character into a franchise, but with a pile of taxes to be paid, Cage has taken to appearing in a lot of unexpected films in the last few years. Somehow, he got Marvel Comics to go along with the idea for a second go at Johnny Blaze, enlisted the directors of Crank, signed on the scenarist of the Chris Nolan Batman films, and, perhaps most shockingly, made a movie that is pretty dang fun. I know this kind of tips my hand, but Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance is the type of film that is going to divide people right down the middle. One group will love the over-the-top acting and action, and the other might feel a little pissed. Hopefully not flaming pissed, but more on that later.
After the events of the first film, which I hardly recall beyond the presence of Peter Fonda and the Rider's bright white skull, Johnny Blaze (Cage) fled to Eastern Europe where, I suppose, he could let the Ghost Rider collect evil souls without all that pesky pleading in English. Blaze is tracked down by Moreau (Idris Elba), a follower of an ancient religious sect. He believes that only the Rider can help protect a young boy who is being pursued by Rourke (Ciaràn Hinds) a.k.a Satan, and in return, he promises to free Johnny from his deal with the Devil. So flaming skull alight, Johnny takes off into the night to save the young boy, Danny (Fergus Riordin), from the grips of Carrigan (Johnny Whitworth), the devil's errand boy. That turns out to be the easy part. To protect Danny, Johnny must face missiles, treacherous monks, Carrigan pumped up by the spirit of decay, and Blaze finds that the Rider may not be as easy to let go as he hoped.
The first thing to consider if you're thinking about seeing Ghost Rider: SOV is if you're prepared to just let go and let the movie be what it is. I entered with minimal expectations and left with a grin on my face from ear to ear. The entire film, from the retooled look of Ghost Rider to the frenetic action sequences and the peppy dialog full of one liners, hit the right balance of genre movie tropes while keeping it all firmly planted in comic book land. Clearly, screenwriter-scenarist David Goyer (Nolan's Batman, the upcoming Man of Steel, Blade) knows his comic books and together with writers Scott Gimple and Seth Hoffman created a world where the supernatural action could thrive. Don't go in expecting the realism of Batman Begins or the glossiness of Captain America because that's not what you're going to get. Instead you'll receive a lot of silly, silly fun that feels an awful lot like the classic 70's adventures of Johnny Blaze that unfolded in the pages of comics.
The one real sticking point in an accurate translation of Johnny Blaze from the page to screen has to be the man playing him. In the books, Blaze is a young blond haired motorcycle daredevil. Meanwhile, Nic Cage is.... well, he's past middle aged, paunchy, balding, and manic. In other words, while he doesn't make a good fit for the character, he makes a hell of a a good time onscreen. Dialing back the insanity of his Port of Call: New Orleans performance by a single notch, Cage fills Ghost Rider:SOV with inspired moments that delighted the audience I saw the film with. Cage, like all the other actors, seems to be having a great time, and his intense mugging as he turns from Johnny to the Rider is delightfully over-the-top. There's even a scene that has to be a nod to Cage's performance in The Wicker Man remake. I don't want to spoil that moment for anyone, but I will say that it has to do with bees. Cage's performance gives Ghost Rider a larger than life feeling, and what is a comic book hero (or anti-hero as the case may be) than a being that is larger than life. Sort of like the man playing him with wild abandon.
Leading the charge in the supporting cast is Idris Elba. Best known as Stringer Bell from HBO's The Wire (though he should be known for the criminally unseen BBC show Luther), British actor Elba plays French here, and he's the only actor who matches Cage's crazed intensity note for note. Also chewing up the scenery was Johnny Whitworth, co-star of the procedural CSI : Miami, as the villainous Carrigan who later gets imbued with the power of decay which makes for some interesting effects later in the film. Fergus Riordin doesn't have much to do in the film other than be the endangered Danny, but his character does make the much talked about flaming pee scene make sense. I won't spoil how, but suffice it to say I was pleasantly surprised that it became one of the film's big laughs instead of its worst moment. Character actor Ciaràn Hinds succeeds here where Peter Fonda failed in the first film. he gives the devil a quiet menace that just works with the film's style. I haven't mentioned Italian actress Violante Placido who plays Danny's mother because apart from looking stunning she's given little to do, but she impresses both with her beauty and in her acting ability during her few scenes. Also look out for appearances by the Highlander, Christopher Lambert, and Buffy's Watcher, Anthony Stewart Head, in small roles.
Ghost Rider: SOV scores in both the writing and acting departments, but for my money the real saviors of this franchise are the directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor. The pair has helmed both of the ludicrous action films Crank and Crank 2, and Ghost Rider: SOV follows in the same formula, everything is pumped to the extreme and the pace should be at a breakneck speed. The short ninety minute running time felt extremely slight in the face of the frenetic pace, but it also kept attention away from glaring plot holes, some middling motorcycle effects, and jokes that fell flat. Their whole approach to Ghost Rider makes the character pop, and like their writers and the cast, clearly Neveldine and Taylor have read a few comics in their time.
I should also mention that I saw Ghost Rider: SOV in 3-D, something I rarely do, and I felt like it paid off. The short running time kept me from getting a headache, and many of the scenes were advanced by the extra depth that the film garnered from the effect. I also saw it in a Regal Theater boasting the Regal Premium Experience, and the sound was so good that I could feel it in the seats.
I'm rarely impressed with a movie going experience so this was nice for a change. What was also nice was having fun while seeing a film. Sure, there are plenty of flaws to be picked apart. I didn't even get into the narration, the animated moments, or the poorly chosen Jerry Springer appearance, but none of it took me too far out of the film at the time. I go to movies like Ghost Rider, and Nic Cage movies in general, to have a good time, and that's exactly what happened here. So if this is how Ghost Rider comes back with the Spirit of Vengeance, I hope people wrong him again and again. (The Rotten Tomatoes score ought be be enough to bring him back for revenge at least once more.) Sadly, I won't be able to add fuel to his head fire because this is the type of film that gets my motor running while I head back out onto the highway.