If you walked out of Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance in a fury over having seen a crap movie then you’re doing it wrong. The Neveldine/Taylor vision of the Marvel Comics character is exactly the sum of its parts. Which is to say, a movie written and directed by the guys behind the two Crank movies, starring Nicolas Cage in one of his more “embrace the crazy” performances. Dudes catch on fire, crap blows up, one man headbutts his own head into ash and Cage turns out one of his most entertaining “crazy” performances in years. This movie is destined to live on as a plaything for a cult fanbase and YouTube clip monkeys.
Spirit of Vengeance is a sequel to Mark Steven Johnson’s big screen take on the Marvel Comics character from 2007, but it’s also not. We’re not retreading the whole origin scenario of how Johnny Blaze became the Ghost Rider. All of that stuff happened already when the movie opens, though the trailer sequence is kind enough to bring viewers up to speed on the story so far, by way of some lovely animations and hand-drawn images.
The story is pretty simple, and relatively inconsequential when you get right down to it. Spoilers? The Devil needs to find a new human host, and the recently born Antichrist — still a young boy — fits the bill perfectly. A secret order of ancient, ass-kicking combat monks sends out one of its own, Moreau (Idris Elba), to cajole Johnny Blaze into looking out for the boy. In return, the monks will help Blaze rid himself of the Ghost Rider demon once his task has been completed. Things don’t turn out as neatly as all of that of course, but that’s to be expected.
An alternative take on the story: Nic Cage gets to go nuts with and without a CG flaming skull in place of his face. He screams, he shouts, he rants and rages, he commits outrageous acts of badassery, all in the name of “Fighting the Bad Guys and Keeping the World Safe.” Neveldine and Taylor embrace high-concept with their whole hearts, with narrative serving as little more than a delivery system for heaping helpings of awesome. Spirit of Vengeance piles that plate high, and in a surprising variety of ways.
Central to it all is Cage. He’s at his best here. Not Leaving Las Vegas best. I’m thinking more along the lines of Face/Off or The Rock. If your automatic response to that statement is a groan, just stop reading right here. This movie isn’t made for you.
If you thought Cage’s zombie vengeance in Drive Angry 3D was too subdued, Ghost Rider ought to please you. This movie is filled with some seriously memorable one-liners. It also features two scenes in particular that will go down in the “crazy moments of Nicolas cage” history. A colleague mentioned one after our review screening as being in his all-time top five. I’m compelled to agree. You’ll know it when you see it. It’s the “club scene.”
Then there’s Neveldine/Taylor. Their staging of the action is relentless, and most of it is built on practical effects. Lots of crap blows up. A 700-foot-tall mountain-slicing strip miner vehicle is set on fire and proceeds to crush and/or broil every bad guy in sight. There’s a serious body count here, especially for a PG-13 movie. No blood, but plenty of big set piece moments and high-speed action, which the co-writer/directors have a knack for really nailing in their films. Check out our interview with the directors for more about the duo.
The supporting players also do what they need to. Special shouts to Elba (Thor, The Losers) and Ciarán Hinds (The Woman in Black, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows), as Moreau and the Devil’s human form, respectively. Elba’s Moreau is, as Neveldine told me the aforementioned interview, a badass “drunk French monk.” Hinds is pure creepy, especially with his increasingly twisted face and blood-red eyes. We don’t see a lot of him, but he makes good use of his screen time.
Johnny Whitworth (Limitless, CSI: Miami) also brings some fire (no pun intended) as Ghost Rider‘s “other” super-powered villain, a reinterpretation of the comic book character Blackout (although he is known only as Ray Carrigan in the movie; no mention of “Blackout”). He’s menacing enough before he goes from human jerk to undead life-sucker, and he really rises to the challenge of turning his performance up to 11 once he’s been transformed. He and a conveniently discovered Twinkie are actually at the center of one of the movie’s funniest laugh-out-loud moments.
The key to enjoying this one is to go in with your expectations tempered to where they should be. And maybe skip the 3D showings; it’s fine, just not essential. This isn’t a big tentpole blockbuster with shiny, polished stars and enough money put into the eye candy to feed a small country. It’s a balls-out action flick from Neveldine/Taylor starring Nicolas Cage. Those two creative forces pair perfectly here. Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance won’t please everyone and it isn’t meant to. But as a Cage-tastic Neveldine/Taylor-fueled roller coaster ride, it’s absolutely spot-on.