After the opening sequence of “Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance” — which deals with the introduction of villain Carrigan (Johnny Whitworth), the victim he seeks (Fergus Riordan as Danny, and — by default — his mother Nadya, played by Violante Placido) and Moreau, the alcoholic monk attempting to intervene (Idris Elba) — the guy sitting in front of me proceeded to bounce up and down uncontrollably in his chair.
Perhaps it was the trademark zooms, POV-style shots and to-the-point dialogue that Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor (directors of “Crank” and “Crank: High Voltage”) are known for. Or maybe it was just the fact that Elba flew off a motorcycle. Backwards. In slow motion.
Either way, the adrenalized reaction was apropos to my thoughts at the moment: I was about to watch Neveldine and Taylor put their unique spin on a comic book movie. And I was going to like it, even if this was a sequel to Sony Pictures’ 2007 “Ghost Rider” film which is remembered less than fondly by most who saw it.
If you’re not hip to the Neveldine and Taylor aesthetic, you’re in for a treat. Not only do these guys direct, but they also serve as camera operators on their films (they actually patented a rollerblading camera operating technique they pioneered on the set of “Crank”). In “Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance,” they took shooting to another level — literally. They boarded motorcycles. What results is a frenetic, adrenaline-charged, stylized and gritty look that melds style with pure momentum and a healthy dose of locker room humor. Their movies are many things, but boring isn’t one of them.
The quick and dirty premise of “Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance” is that former daredevil turned flaming skulled biker Johnny Blaze (Nicolas Cage) has been holed up in Eastern Europe, and Moreau seeks him out to help protect Danny — a child with mysterious powers, who is being hunted by Carrigan. In return for his assistance, Moreau promises to give Blaze his soul back. The ensuing chase takes them across the continent, and results in a pretty righteous body count — along with some insanely-choreographed action sequences (one of which takes place on top of moving trucks).
It’s a well-known fact that the 2007 “Ghost Rider” film (also starring Nicolas Cage as Johnny Blaze/Ghost Rider) was a major stinker, so the directing duo had their work cut out for them with this re-imagining of the franchise. They took liberties with the Marvel Comics property, to be sure (“Ghost Rider” purists out there may scoff — particularly at the fact that Whitworth’s alter-ego Blackout is a bit different than the comic character). But — as Neveldine and Taylor would tell you — there have been so many iterations of the comic books, they felt those many interpretations gave them freedom to run with things. When all is said and done, you still get Johnny Blaze transforming into a fiery, skull-faced demon who sucks out people’s souls. He pees fire in this movie, too — for good measure.
Cage-philes will be delighted to learn that he turns in a classic performance with this new installment — largely due to the fact that, unlike many other directors, Neveldine and Taylor understand how to work with him. It’s clear that they simply channeled Cage’s energy into key scenes — the intensity (and inherent quirkiness) shines. There’s a particular scene where Johnny Blaze shoves a villain against a wall, and — during interrogation — attempts to “shake off” the impending transformation into his Ghost Rider alter-ego. That — combined with a trippy spin on his motorcycle as he undergoes the metamorphosis — is, without a doubt, a top five Nic Cage moment. “Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance” is Cage deliciously unbridled — just the way we love him.
Cage’s Blaze also has a penchant for shooting down any remotely emotional conversations with a well-placed one-liner — a very funny undercurrent in the narrative (and one that keeps the film blessedly tongue-in-cheek).
Whitworth delivers a solid performance as Carrigan/Blackout — helped along substantially by the “Blackout Vision” Neveldine and Taylor created for his character. As Blackout nears a victim, the color seeps out of the surroundings, the light bends and there’s an almost fish-eye lens POV effect employed. It’s just another example of how Neveldine and Taylor took their trademark style and ramped it up for the film, and it’s inventive and fun to watch.
I’m a little biased, but I think the movie could’ve used more Idris Elba — in every scene, ideally. This is a different side of Elba than you’ve seen (no Stringer Bell to be found) — much more subdued, humorous. Also, French. And drunk. But I think he could’ve been used to greater purpose — he’s essentially Blaze’s unlikely partner — and, at times, Mr. Exposition, but he isn’t given any truly meaty scenes.
Speaking of exposition, something I’ve always loved about Neveldine and Taylor is that they have absolutely no patience for it. In “Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance,” the sentiment manifests itself into really cool graphic interludes — often with Cage voicing over, and always with snide remarks and jokes to accompany the facts. The look of the animation is starkly black, white and red — not entirely born of the comic’s design, but it’s something of a nod.
As far as the 3D goes — it’s largely unnecessary (a sentiment you’ll find me repeating ad nauseum). Unless the technology is employed to elevate or illustrate facets of a film’s narrative (a-la last year’s Best Picture-nominee “Hugo” and “Cave of Forgotten Dreams”), I don’t see the point.
“Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance” isn’t the most cerebral movie, but it’s pretty insane fun. The effects are solid, Cage’s performance is off the charts and the pace is relentless. It’s Neveldine and Taylor doing Marvel — what more could you want?
“Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance” opens nationwide today.