Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance is mostly an unholy mess of a movie that just narrowly misses falling into so-bad-it’s-good territory. Nic Cage returns as the demonic anti-hero and Johnny Whitworth plays Kurt Russell in the Neveldine/Taylor duo’s attempt to grittily reboot the Ghost Rider franchise.
This time the Ghost Rider must save the son of the Devil from being turned into the Anti-Christ in Eastern Europe. The movie takes place in Eastern Europe because shooting a movie in Romania is cheaper than shooting a movie in the United States. The Devil’s minions on the hunt for the kid all wear black leather jackets and hang out in places like abandoned warehouses and abandoned construction sites, because I guess that’s what Devil worshippers do.
Neveldine and Taylor initially sparked some interest in this reboot by promising a gritty, R-rated side of the super hero that we haven’t seen before. Unfortunately, we didn’t really get Crank from Hell, but the movie showcases some of the brutality and oddball humor that permeated their earlier movies. This movie should have been a lot better, and yet it somehow ended up being oddly lukewarm.
I’m just going to go ahead and say something that some readers might find controversial: I think Nic Cage is a great actor. I admire his drive to give his all for any director and with any material, no matter how kitsch. Film acting is kind of like the old trust-building test where one person falls backwards and has to rely on his partner to catch him; only in this case, the person falling backwards is the actor and the person who is supposed to catch him is the director. Good actors have to have that sort of faith, because an actor is never going to be able to know what the finished product is going to look like unless he or she is also producing or directing. Nicolas Cage, however, is willing to fall flat on his ass for any filmmaker. And he does. Frequently.
Solid actors like Matt Damon and Brad Pitt might give intense or emotionally raw performances for fantastic directors with proven track records like Martin Scorsese and David Fincher, but they tend to play it cool and reserved when working with lesser talents. In these cases, the performances may end up being dry and even boring, but never embarrassing. For Nic Cage, it doesn’t seem to matter whether the guy behind the camera is Martin Scorsese or Joel Schumacher. He throws himself at each role with enthusiasm and leaves himself completely vulnerable. In any given role, Cage may be amazing (Adaptation, Leaving Las Vegas) or god awful (The Wicker Man), but he’s rarely ever boring. It’s just not in his constitution. That’s why I’m a fan.
As far as his performance in this movie goes, he gives one of his vintage twitchy, tortured, bat-shit insane Cage-outs. And within the context of the hyperactive first half of the movie, it works. Neveldine and Taylor made a few missteps with this flick, but they at least know how to use Nic Cage. Hopefully, the trio will collaborate again in the future on a better project with a better script. Ciaran Hinds and Idris Elba acquit themselves reasonably well, and Johnny Whitworth plays the shit out of Kurt Russell. And I’m not being completely dismissive of the guy here. His performance as one of Satan’s minions is often hammy and over the top in a role where a little subtlety would have gone a long way, but this guy looks just like Kurt Russell circa 1982 and has all the sleazy charisma of Jack Burton in Big Trouble in Little China. If Hollywood insists on rebooting all of John Carpenter’s old movies this guy should be standing at front of the line to star in them.
For what it’s worth, I also like Neveldine and Taylor. Sure, the only movie of theirs I’ve actually liked is the original Crank, but they have developed a unique, insane style of filmmaking that’s all their own and for all its faults, rarely results in a boring or cookie-cutter final product. The duo is a really a good match for a movie about a pill-popping stunt man who occasionally bursts into flames and eats people’s souls.
So we have a couple of cracked out, insane directors, a cracked out maniac of a leading man as our hero, and a supporting cast of mostly charismatic actors in a movie about a chain-wielding skeleton who rides a flaming motorcycle. What the hell went wrong? Well, the screenplay.
The movie works best when the Ghost Rider is pursuing the kidnapped child of the Devil and wreaking all manner of mayhem along the way. But halfway through, someone apparently decided that the story should have a heart, and Neveldine and Taylor don’t really do…heart. They do eye-bleeding insanity. Cage doesn’t have any chemistry with the kid or his gypsy mother, and the attempt by the writers to turn the three into an untraditional family feels half-assed and forced. A subplot involving Johnny Blaze (Ghost Rider) temporarily ridding himself of the curse feels ripped from Superman 2, and also comes across as lazy.
The screenplay mostly hobbles the momentum that Neveldine and Taylor typically bring to their movies. When the Ghost Rider does let loose, however, the action is both inventive and brutal. But unfortunately, its not enough to save this movie from mediocre movie Purgatory.