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2007's saw the poor attempt at bringing Marvel's anti-hero Ghost Rider to the big screen, in an effort to emulate the success of other Marvel characters such as Spidey and the X-Men. The highly criticised film surprisingly spawned a sequel, prompting raised eyebrows more effective than those of Nicolas Cage as the Rider. I popped back to my review of the original film and found my thoughts on a potential sequel at the time were as follows:
'I imagine there will not be a second one made, but if there is, then this will have served to introduce the relevant characters. Hopefully, if for some reason a second one is made, they will endeavour to dispense with the formalities of character introduction, give a brief recap of this film's events, and launch straight into an action-packed, revenge filled hour and a half of pure, and unadulterated Marvel awesomeness, which is exactly what this film isn't.'
So, did they learn their lesson? Well, to start with, you'd think they'd actually taken my advice when creating the sequel. The film launches into action with Idris Elba's Moreau (some French religious hero) trying to save the life of a random kid who is purported to be of interest to the devil himself! An interesting opening, I was encouraged for the rest of the film, but after the first five minutes, this is pretty much where the entertainment stopped. They certainly dispensed with excessive character introduction, and launched straight into showing how former stunt motorcyclist Johnny Blaze can channel his anger and turn into Ghost Rider, a leather clad antihero whose head is a flaming skull.
So, where does it go wrong with the aforementioned hopeful hour and a half of Marvel awesomeness? Well, there's this obsession with a plot. I can get that there needs to be some foundation of a script and that a film of solid action and no purpose would be a non starter, but really they overdid the emotional element again. I was bored by the mother and son angle for the kid that Moreau saves, although they kept replaying bits of it and slowing the pace down. Similarly, I was bored by Blaze's obsession with ridding himself of the Ghost Rider and becoming a mere mortal once again. And when this is addressed, the only entertainment is in the hope that the impressive special effects that GR gives you actually come back at some point to save us from a fate worse than boredom.
Man, they love these special effects. Every time GR is on screen, it's as if they need to pause for a few moments, bring on some heavy grunge/rock/punk bass sounds and drag things out. GR needs to angle his head three or four ways before anything happens, and his firy whip is a much more effective weapon than is given credit for here. The comic books featuring GR lend themselves to the feel and look of the skull, but you can't really see it much here as it's all about posturing and trying to put fear into the villains whenever there's a fight sequence. Nolan managed to do it well with Batman by things flowing very well and providing relevant interludes during each of the films, but here, those responsible for GR just fail dramatically.
I fell asleep twice watching the last 20 minutes of this film, but was determined to find out what happens. Turns out I probably could have written the rest of the film having watched the first five minutes and could have saved myself an hour and a half of my life that I've lost forever. Cage is wooden and tries too hard with the emotions as Blaze, while I doubt he actually has anything to do with GR when he's on screen. Elba is okay, but much better in grittier darker roles as opposed to the innocent and caring hero here - it doesn't quite work. Ciaran Hinds is always a sure fire thing as a villain, but even he can't work well with a poor script and a sequel that never should have been.
The financial spin for this film must have come out of someone's peronsal pocket, because the decision to make this sequel must have been a shock for many in the Marvel world. The failed first film has led to an even worse second film, and has tainted the impression I have of GR to a certain extent. I feel the need to go and buy the Wolverine-GR run of issues from the 90s to get GR back on my fan radar once more - still, perhaps back issues are where they're hoping revenue will come from this dire release. Stay well clear, or you'll get burnt.
As someone who grew up with comic book superheroes, the last 15 years of so have been pretty enjoyable for me watching all my childhood heroes come to the big screen. Years of attempts to bring costumed crime fighters to the big screen had either failed to materialise (James Cameron's Spiderman) or just not have been up to much as movies (Matt Sallinger as Captain America) especially when it came to Marvel Comics characters. Blade was the first strike, X-Men and Spiderman changed the playing field, offering up genuine big budget takes on my favourites with proper actors and everything. Their sequels proved even more successful, and before long all of Marvel's big licenses were taken, and some of the company's more obscure properties were getting big screen adaptations, one of which was 2007's Ghost Rider.
The first Ghost Rider movie was far from a runaway success, financially or artistically. It wasn't totally awful, significantly better than Daredevil if we're being honest, but I have to say I was somewhat surprised when a second Ghost Rider movie emerged. It really looked like the first picture would be the characters sole foray onto the silver screen, at least until Marvel/Disney regained the license. Nicholas Cage was back as the titular character, and directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, of Crank 2 fame, were brought in to address the first film's lack of action sequences.
As it would turn out, Spirit of Vengeance, as this new Ghost Rider movie would be called, would in fact reboot the character. Despite using the same actor in the role. Now, the casting of Cage in the first movie came in for some criticism, mainly down to the perfectly valid reasoning he neither suited the role of a stunt-driver turned demonic vigilante, and was realistically too old for the role, but I wasn't so against it. Cage had spent most of the 1990s, when nobody wanted to make superhero pictures, trying to get Superman and Iron Man projects off the ground, he clearly REALLY wanted to be in at least one superhero movie, and his presence added a bit of panache to what would undoubtedly otherwise be effectively a B-Movie. He didn't exactly make the character his own, so why you would want to re-start the franchise using the same actor as the first movie is beyond me. Secondly, the first movie really served little purpose but to establish the character's origin (always the most tiresome bit of any adaptation) which it did in a suitable fashion. Spirit of Vengeance retcons this plot with a minor and completely unnecessary change that has no bearing on the plot. If you ask me, the truth is they simply couldn't come up with a decent way of writing Eva Mendes character from the first movie out of the plot.
Spirit of Vengeance opens somewhere in 'Eastern Europe'. Eastern Europe. Imagine a film set in 'North America'. Anyway we have a monk named Moreau (Idris Elba) who returns to his monastery/castle, which has a high tech command centre within it, to the news that a prophesised boy has been found. This boy, Danny (Fergus Riordan) is the product of his criminal mother Nadya (Violante Placido) making a deal with a demon named Roarke (Ciaran Hinds) in exchange for a son - a vessel to transfer himself into when the time comes. Needless to say the time has come, and the monks make it their business to try and shelter the boy until the time passes (allegedly in a few days)
Needless to say this does not go to plan, as the castle comes under siege from Carrigan (Johhny Whitworth) and his men. Carrigan is a smuggling gun for hire working for Roarke, and coincidentally also Nadya's ex boyfriend. Nadya and Danny do manage to escape, as Moreau seeks out help in the form of the exiled Johhny Blaze (Nicholas Cage) Blaze is a former stunt biker who sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his father's life. As such he is prone to transforming into the legendary Ghost Rider, a leather clad avenger with a flaming skull. Moreau informs Blaze he has the means to lift this curse from him in exchange for his help, and it isn't long before Nadya finds herself part of the team when Carrigan finally gets his hands on Danny. It isn't long before a hidden monastery with ulterior plans for Danny get involved, and Roarke has to transform Carrigan into the demonic Blackout - with the ability to decay with his touch to help combat the Rider as good and evil collide with the fate of the world in the balance!
Seamlessly blending in all the bog standard superhero movie clichés (an attempt to give up the superhero identity being the most tired) with the plot-light, set-piece heavy formulae of the crank movies, Spirit of Vengeance makes significantly more bad decisions than it does good ones. The aspect of the Monks at the hidden monastery is a completely unexplored plot device lobbed in for the sake of offering up sacrificial characters for an action set piece, Moreau is an utterly bizarre addition to the plot who realistically is just there to involve Ghost Rider/Blaze. I don't really get why writers opt to ignore years worth of history and characters that not only do fans know and like, but actually genuinely tie in and compliment the main protagonist.
I don't totally grasp the point of changing the name of the Satanic arch fiend from Mephisto, who is the Marvel Universe's demon in chief, to the fabricated for this movie Roarke, nor making him a fairly clichéd old croaky voiced, leather glove and cheap suit wearing depiction of satan as opposed to the neat touch of having Peter Fonda play a significantly more stylish Beelzebub. I understand Fonda probably didn't want anything to do with this, but Ghost Rider's fairly entertaining take on Mephisto was one of its better aspects.
In fact, this is part of the movie's biggest problem; it doesn't seem to want memorable characters, as that might interfere with getting from one action set piece to the next. Ghost Rider/Blaze has become an absolute mess of a character, delivering self-loathing at what he is and bland attempts at humour in the same tone. Ghost Rider as a character was a particular favourite of mine as a kid, mainly because he looked awesome, but he was one of those rare cases where having 2 characters share a body worked out nicely. Here the Rider itself is described by Blaze as an emotionless, unreasonable machine who will stop at nothing to exact vengeance on wrong doers. This is a fairly shoddy, Poundland representation of the character to begin with, but when you figure in the fact he makes (terrible) wise cracks and acts exactly like Blaze in the final conflict you realise that they just wanted an excuse to make him so boring. Because make no mistake, they in fact do manage to make a demonic superhero who's head is a flaming skull pretty uneventful.
As much as I didn't want to rip into him for the first film, Nicholas Cage really, really fails with his performance here. Snapping from deadpan to hysterical with nothing in-between, I'm genuinely embarrassed for a guy who not too long ago had a respectable acting career. At times he almost seems to be trying to channel Bruce Campbell in Evil Dead 2 with his madcap facial expressions,
The supporting cast aren't any better. Idris Elba is a fine actor, and deserves every one of these paydays he is now receiving, but his terrible French accent (for the record, there is absolutely no need for his character to be French) and under-written character doesn't give him a lot to work with. Placido is superb eye candy but little else and Hinds depicts the devil himself like a villain on TV's Law & Order. Johnny Whitworth gives a fair crack at trying to give Carrigan/Blackout (he's never actually referred to as such by the way, I just think that's who he's meant to be based on) a bit of panache, but ultimately almost tries TOO hard to make a sneering villain and veers into annoying territory.
Arguably the film's biggest detraction is its direction though. In an attempt to cover up the fairly terrible semblance of a plot tied around the action sequences, the directors have attempted to get 'artistic' with the action sequences to try and excite viewers. As such we are treated to completely illogical (even with suspension of disbelief) scenes where Ghost Rider hovers and spins horizontally in mid air after an explosion, comic book style animated sequences, black and white scenes where you can't really tell what is going on and general odd, shaky cameras. Gentlemen, your protagonist has a flaming skull for a head, what is necessary to make Jason Statham stand out is not really required here, just have him do something cool. Fight scenes are a non event, over in a few punches, or in the final showdown's case shot in such a way it just isn't fun to watch. Ghost Rider also doesn't do a great deal of 'Riding' in Spirit of Vengeance. His motorcycle has undergone a dreadfully lame makeover, instead of being a unique, rather cool design like in the first movie we simply have a motorbike with the wheels on fire. The film does introduce the fun twist that Ghost Rider transforms whatever he rides, but we only see this once and the 'transformation' similarly consists just of a vehicles wheels being on fire.
When all is said and done, there really isn't a great deal of good one can say about Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, and this is from a man who actively looks for good in movies like this (I don't even think Green Lantern is a total disaster) It's a poorly written, badly executed film I'm surprised even got green-lighted. It's certainly got to be the final nail in the coffin for the character in the movies, at least until Marvel themselves get their hands back on the rights.
It's my own fault. I never learn. Way back in 2007, I went to watch Ghost Rider. It was awful.
Fast forward five years and Ghost Rider has received a somewhat belated (and inexplicable) sequel. In 3D no less. Surely lessons will have been learned: the weak plot, dull characters and pedestrian pacing of the original rectified? Not a chance. If anything, Ghost Rider 2: Spirit of Vengeance is even worse.
Like its predecessor, the vague plot is muddled, confused and dissatisfying. Don't even try and make any sense out of it because you will only end up hurting yourself. There's something about a boy that everyone is hunting because he has some vague power or other Oh, and he might be the son of the Devil who turned Johnny Blaze into Ghost Rider in the first film. Johnny is dragged into all the child-hunting shenanigans by the mysterious Moreau who promises to cure him of the Ghost Rider curse if he rescues the boy and keeps him safe until some vague threat or other has passed.
Ghost Rider is all style over substance. OK, you expect that from a comic book adaptation. After all, by their very nature, comics are a highly visual medium, so you would expect any film based on them to follow the same pattern. And Sin City showed how it could work if you got the right blend between comic book visuals, strong writing and great characters.
Ghost Rider has none of these. Instead, it has special effects. Lots and lots of special effects. Realising that Ghost Rider is somewhat deficient in the plot and character department, directors Neveldine and Taylor (the people responsible for the abomination that was Crank 2) rely on special effects to overwhelm the viewer. So, we get some sections that are told using semi-static comic book images; ones which are in stark black and white; bleached effects where everything is shrouded in darkness or the bizarre (and totally inexplicable) sequence where Ghost Rider is lying down, unsupported in mid-air. Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez have both showed that this type of approach can work, but Ghost Rider lacks the tight plotting and consistent visual approach needed to pull it off.
The fact is that Kill Bill was directed by a Master; Ghost Rider 2 by a couple of kids who have had too much sherbet and fizzy pop. Neveldine & Taylor have repeatedly demonstrated that they cannot be trusted with even a point and shoot digital camera, let alone an expensive Hollywood film-set up, and there's nothing in Ghost Rider 2 that is about to change my mind.
Of course, any comic book film is going to stand or fall on its set-pieces and fight scenes and thanks to some awful directing, Ghost Rider 2 firmly slots into the "fall" category. They probably looked quite good when storyboarded, but Neveldine/Taylor turn them into an unholy, confusing mess. Their inability to place a camera correctly or, indeed, to hold it still for more than half a second means that much of the time it's hard to see what is going on.
This confusing direction also impacts on the 3D which is almost completely pointless. Since it's so hard to see what is going on at the best of times, the brain barely registers the fact that 3D has been used. It's neither used to give the film depth, nor to make it more interesting. It's a shame, because this is a film where 3D could have worked. Imagine Ghost Rider's fiery chain flying out of the screen at you, or his flaming motorcycle heading right for you. That would have been worth paying to see. Sadly, that's not what you get.
I'd like to report that fine acting saves the day, but there's none to be found here. Most of the characters are empty ciphers that pop up from time to time, utter some trite dialogue and then disappear until the next time their "words of wisdom" are needed. Nicolas Cage looks far too old for the role of Johnny Blaze, his laconic drawl robbing the character of any sense of passion or drama and his bizarre movements (apparently Cage was trying to make Ghost Rider cobra-like) just make him look like someone has shoved itching powder down his leather jacket . This is lazy stuff from a once good actor and his tendency to gurn his way through this film is truly embarrassing. Acting has been replaced by the random twitching of facial muscles.
Nor are things any better elsewhere. Ciaran Hinds as Roarke (or Satan) follows Cage's lead and contorts his face in a manner that makes him look like a horse trying to eat a caramel toffee, speaking his turgid dialogue in a gruff voice which is meant to sound tough but just sounds like he needs a good gargle. Idris Elba pops up in a baffling cameo as some French geezer who is protecting the child for some unknown reason and somehow manages to track both child and Ghost Rider down whenever he needs to (how is never explained; not that you will care. Poor old Christopher Lambert, meanwhile, is so bored with his role as A Mysterious Monk that he has taken to doodling all over his skin. The one vaguely bright spot is youngster Fergus Riordan as youngster Danny, the child everyone is looking for. Riordan reminded me of a young Edward Furlong in Terminator 2 - a good child actor who can be both vulnerable and determined.
It could have been fun; if the lessons had been learned from the first film, Ghost Rider could have worked. After all, how can you not like a film which has a flaming skeleton riding a motorcycle as the hero? The problem is that this is all the film has going for it. With no coherent story to follow or characters to care about, Ghost Rider 2 is left entirely reliant on those special effects.
Sadly, having a flaming, motor-bike riding skeleton hanging around for 90 minutes is clearly going to be a serious drain on your special effects budget. But that's not a problem for the Neveldine/Taylor Brains Trust! The solution? Simple. Just write a script where The Rider (as he's referred to throughout the film in a desperate attempt to appear cool) disappears for the whole middle section. Sure, this might rob the film of its one potential bright spot, but Hey! Think of all the money that's being saved! Instead of calling the film Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (a mostly meaningless sub-title that is only explained right at the end when the writers remember), it should have been called Ghost Rider 2: Where's Ghost Rider?
Possibly the worst thing is that Ghost Rider tries to be funny and falls flat on its face. It's seriously embarrassing - a bit like having to endure your drunken uncle regale people with a rambling unfunny anecdote at a family part. It tries to be funny through (what it thinks) is a bit of witty banter and repartee, a few one-liners that even Roger Moore's James Bond would have been ashamed to make and a few visual gags that few but the most hardened Marvel fans will pick up. There's a particularly unfunny visual joke centred on what happens when Ghost Rider has to have a wee. This is apparently so funny the directors feel the need to use it twice. The few laughs the film does raise are unintentional, the result of some awful, cheesy dialogue ("I give you the power of ... DECAY!").
On the plus side, it is mercifully short. That genuinely is about the only nice thing I can find to say about Ghost Rider 2: Sprit of Vengeance. Other than that, it's a disaster.
Ghost Rider is yet more proof that when it comes to turning their second or third tier heroes into successful films, Marvel are pretty clueless. It's clear that Spider-Man, Iron Man, Thor and The Avengers have eaten up so much of Marvel's budget so there was not much left for Ghost Rider; something which shows in the end product.
Directors: Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor
Running time: approx. 95 minutes
© Copyright SWSt 2012