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Non-Review Review: Ghost Rider – Spirit of Vengeance

I’m convinced that there must be a half-decent Ghost Rider movie to be made. In fact, I’m sure that Nicolas Cage already made it, in the form of the deliciously pulpy Drive Angry, which touched on a lot of the grindhouse and B-movie qualities one expects from a movie featuring a stunt driver with a flaming skull who sucks souls from criminals. In contrast, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance feels like it’s trying a little too hard. The script feels just a little bit too stilted and conventional, while the direction seems to overcompensate, feeling gimmicky to the point of being distracting and almost disorientating.

Hell’s Angel…

It’s a shame. Because you figure that if a team of directors existed who could inject the necessary pulpy and trashy energy into the story of a demonic biker, it would be the guys who brought us Crank. Now, the Statham vehicle had its problems, but a lack of trashy energy was not one of them. Unfortunately, it almost seems like Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor are channelling video games in putting together the movie. Their mandated supervillain, for example, seems to pull his victims into what looks like a video game death scene, as does the Ghost Rider’s constant jumping back and forth between various vehicles which he “Ghost Rider”-izes.

Neveldine and Taylor chop the hell out of their film. The camera barely seems capable of remaining still, which would be grand if there weren’t so many exposition scenes. Even if two characters are just talking, expect the camera to swing around and pan and rotate, if it doesn’t quick cut back-and-forth. Even a phone call becomes visually distracting, to the point where it’s hard to concentrate on the plot points being conveyed.

“Um… I could use a hand here…”

The film seems, understandably, restless at points like this, as if it’s almost disinterested in the exposition. That’s understandable – nobody’s here to listen to Satan talk about computers – but the response isn’t for the directors to get bored with these scenes and simply keep the cameras rotating to give the illusion of movement. The solution is to find a way to make them interesting – whether in consultation with the actors, or through reworking the sequences in question.

However, if the movie can’t keep still during the “slow” moments, it comes completely undone during the action sequences. The camera work is choppy, the cuts are quick, the movement is fast. Slow motion is used, as is something almost like “playback.” All that in mind, things get a little funky with the eponymous character, who seems almost governed by the rules of cheesy action movie editing.

Road warrior…

At various points, we cut away from a slow motion or multi-angle shot only to discover that the world is moving in real-time outside the title character. When a grenade goes off, for example, the Rider is thrown into the air and the camera seems to rotate around him. However, a quick cut reveals everyone else is okay. They’re staring at this guy floating in slow motion in the air, rotating like a 3D graphic, and then he springs on them in hyper-fast motion. It seems like an idea that might be interesting – what if a character, rather than a film, operated with these action movie editing clichés? – but the execution is more than a little confusing, and nothing comes of it.

The movie’s plot itself is fairly standard, but the finer details feel a little frustrating. The Ghost Rider is apparently now a spiritual counterpart to the Incredible Hulk, something that Johnny Blaze transforms into at times of great stress, and seems to struggle against, living in isolation so as to avoid inadvertently hurting people. I like the Hulk, but there have been several movies featuring the character – so why rehash the same point? Especially since the solo movies didn’t do so well financially?

It all goes up in flames…

That’s not to say that there isn’t the occasional interesting idea thrown in there. Indeed, the movie offers in interesting origin for the character, suggesting that he’s a fallen angel, corrupted by Satan so that he confuses Justice with Vengeance. That’s a neat idea, but it is never really developed. Instead, it generates all sorts of unanswered questions. Why would Satan create a weapon that could be used against him? Towards the end of the film, he refers to the Rider as “the worst $%&@ing deal I ever made”, so can’t he revoke it? If the Ghost Rider is a free agent, what did Satan get out of the deal in the first place?

There are all manner of really basic question raised by the premise, and none of them are really addressed in the gigantic mess of a film that follows. It might not have been an issue if the Ghost Rider wasn’t the most interesting thing about the film. Nicolas Cage plays up Johnny’s angst, so there’s little fun there, and most of the rest of the cast suffer in the editing room. However, the Ghost Rider himself actually seems kinda fun. There’s a nice shot, as he works a demonic crane, of the character laughing manically at the carnage and destruction that he is causing. I wanted to see more of that guy, to be frank. And less of the “poor me, I’m just a poor Bruce Banner knock-off” nonsense.

And Hell rode with him…

Indeed, the Ghost Rider is also the movie’s primary special effects accomplishment. Some of the CGI looks a bit dodgy in places, but the Rider himself actually looks great, much better than he did in the original film. His skull looks like it has been burnt to a crisp, and his flames move perfectly, seeming to bob up and down as he walks. Sadly we don’t spend nearly enough time with him, but he does succeed in injecting some measure of life into what’s a muddled execution of a pedestrian script.

Cage himself is, as mentioned above, subdued. The rest of the cast seem to do their best, but it feels like the performances were lost in editing. The direction doesn’t seem interested in the actors – which is a shame when you have both Idris Elba and Ciarán Hinds trapped in the film, both actors who should be above this material. Neither performer gets to make much of an impression, alas. I did wonder why the child of a gypsy had an American accent though, as an aside.

Old Nick…

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance is a mess of a film. The most fundamental problems lie with a script that can’t even execute cheesy horror clichés properly, but the direction only enlarges these problems. Maybe third time will be the charm. If there is a third time. It would take an act of God.

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