Almost exactly 5 years ago when they released the first GHOST RIDER picture (directed by the writer of the GRUMPY OLD MEN pictures) I thought it looked so hilarious that I couldn’t help going to the first showing. I remember it was before noon at an AMC theater on a Friday, which I discovered was their window for what counts as a matinee, so it cost 5 bucks. Good deal, but small consolation for the unfortunately boring movie and the guilt of having participated in making it a surprise hit even though nobody liked it.
So on Friday I found myself facing down part 2, this time from Nevildine/Taylor, the giggling-camera-wigglers-on-rollerblades legally and morally responsible for CRANK and GAMER. Against 22 different styles and colors of better judgment I found myself compelled to the first showing of this one too. The matinee costs 6 bucks now. But that’s fair – it’s at least a dollar more enjoyable than part 1. Probly $1.50 even.
Cage returns as the ’70s Marvel Comics character Johnny Blaze, a motorcycle daredevil who made a deal with the devil and now is forever cursed to occasionally turn, werewolf style, into a rampaging demon that he can’t control. The demon has a skeleton head and hands and is covered in flames. I believe there is something about he can shoot chains also.
I forget if they explained in part 1 when he turns into the Ghost Rider. It’s not on purpose, it’s not when he gets angry, it’s not always at night. Maybe they recapped that in this one but if so I missed it. I couldn’t figure out what makes him change. It just happens sometimes.
In many ways SPIRIT OF VENGEANCE feels like a DTV sequel. It’s all shot in Romania and Turkey, in remote locations without alot of people. I’m pretty sure there are no vehicles ever seen on the roads that are not driven by the main characters. The camerawork is self-consciously hyperactive, there are Avid fart scene transitions, Christopher Lambert shows up without a damn thing to do (although he does have his face covered in tattoos, so points for that I guess). It doesn’t give the impression that alot of thought was put into the writing, with at least one character (Idris Elba’s wine-drinking, asskicking French priest sidekick) showing up out of nowhere with no explanation of who he’s supposed to be or why Ghost Rider trusts him.
Several scenes try to hide their low production values with shitty-looking stylistic conceits like gratuitous blur effects or all black backgrounds in place of sets or locations. One (I think) intentionally cheap-looking scene has Cage in front of sped up driving footage making goofy faces with a bunch of jumpcuts and cartoony digital facial distortions reminiscent of 1994’s then cutting edge THE MASK. (Judging from the credits most of the digital effects were outsourced to India.)
In an attempt to make it fun and crazy they have little animated parts explaining who Ghost Rider is and etc., and they’re well designed, but what ever happened to animating the animated parts? They did it for example in NATURAL BORN KILLERS, CREEPSHOW 2, ONE CRAZY SUMMER, THE DANGEROUS LIVES OF ALTAR BOYS and TANK GIRL. Now it’s usually just still drawings that they sort of move around in a computer. They pulled this shit in JONAH HEX too. You’d think comic book people would know cartoon people they could convince to work on their movies.
I sort of got a kick out of the scrappy low budget feel of the thing, so I was pretty surprised to read that even with Cage agreeing to a pay cut to get it made they allegedly spent $75 million on it. That’s like $20 million more than it cost to make BLADE 2, $40 million more than PUNISHER’S WAR ZONE. It’s approximately 5.3 UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: REGENERATIONs. Can you believe that? Red Bull must cost a fortune in Romania.
On the positive side it doesn’t have a DTV-style convoluted plot (in fact I think it’s a little too simple), it has some color in it, not that gloomy washed out look that so many movies have, and the effects on the titular flaming skeleton guy are good. I don’t remember him looking this cool in the first one. His jacket is melted (sometimes bubbling) and he looks pretty real driving around on dusty roads in the daylight instead of on those generic night time soundstages from part 1.
BLADE’s David S. Goyer gets a story and co-writing credit along with TV writers Scott M. Gimple & Seth Hoffman. Apparently those two rejiggered it from an old script by Goyer which was intended as the first GHOST RIDER movie, from BLADE director Stephen Norrington, but the studio dumped it because it would’ve had to be rated-R. Now of course it’s a sequel (sort of – the origin is brief, but changed so that he made a deal with the devil on purpose not by accident, and the devil is Cieran Hinds instead of Peter Fonda). And it’s PG-13 now, which maybe explains why Johnny Blaze keeps mentioning how dangerous it is to unleash the Ghost Rider because he’s judgmental of everybody and will kill even the people Johnny loves, but then this never comes up other than one part where the skeleton stares at the girl but doesn’t hurt her. Following through is strictly for 14 and up.
It’s been pointed out that the story is basically TERMINATOR 2. A dangerous, inhuman force with a leather jacket and motorcycle is sent to protect a streetwise kid and his battle-worn mother from forces that intend to kill him because of what he’s fated to grow into. They even have the part where it’s said that this non-human killer is a better role model than mom’s various ex-boyfriends. It’s kind of interesting that it’s a reverse T2 though: in regular T2 the evil machines from the future want to kill the kid before he becomes the savior of humanity. In this one it’s basically the good guys, the priests, who want to kill the kid before he becomes the guy who destroys the world. I mean, the priests got a good point. But Ghost Rider wants to save the kid because he believes in giving an antichrist time to change.
It should go without saying that it’s a mistake to set up your movie to be compared to T2. Any movie is gonna have a hard time competing, and this one in particular pales in spectacle, in emotion, in characterization and everything else. While T2 goes to great lengths to establish John Connor’s antisocial lifestyle (tearing around on a dirtbike, stealing from ATM machines, running from cops, gun training in the desert) GR2 introduces mom and son as Roma pickpockets, then never references that again or has them do anything but get protected by Ghost Rider. And despite all the advancements in technology the action is nowhere near the scale or excitement of the real T2. I mean, the big scene is on a construction site, like a Cannon movie. There are a few cool ideas, like the bad guys buy bunker busters and shoot them at him, without much effect.
There’s a couple new Ghost powers too. He claims to piss fire “like a blowtorch,” but we only see an imagined version of it (which is good because everybody knows from A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 4: THE DREAM MASTER that peeing fire brings Freddy back to life. Or maybe that’s only when dogs do it). Also we learn that any vehicle he drives will be wrapped in fire, including dumptrucks and construction equipment. They joke about different things it would be funny for him to ride (a camel, for example) but don’t actually show it. I would like to see him on a flaming Segway or SmartCar. Or taking public transportation.
I did not come away with the feeling that this was a good movie, but I sort of had fun with it. It’s weirder and shorter than the first one, though it drags a bit in the middle. I wish one of Ghost Rider’s powers was to smoosh his own movie together with DRIVE ANGRY 3D. That was an overall more entertaining and coherently photographed (in real 3D) movie, but it had a disappointingly restrained performance by Mr. Cage. It could’ve been great if he was Ghost Rider in that one.
I can remember two things I liked about part 1:
a) for some damn reason Cage made it that Johnny Blaze loves eating jelly beans and watching monkey movies.
Unfortunately there are no references to that in the sequel.
2) the whole movie served as a metaphor for Cage’s career, that he signed a Faustian bargain and is forced into bad things that he has no control over but he’s occasionally able to breathe fire and do wheelies in the form of mega-acting.
Unfortunately this reading was hurt by the fact that whenever he transformed into Ghost Rider it was an animated character and obviously not the real Cage. It was kind of defeating itself because every time he turned into the skeleton you would wish he would just stay as Cage. You should be excited every time he does it. I’ve seen alot of reviews that still felt that way about this sequel, but not me. I thought they solved that problem the way they addressed it in the sequel. This time I was excited whenever he made the transition to boniness.
He doesn’t turn into Ghost Rider as much as you’d think, and even loses the curse for a while (I hope that means the Indian FX artists got to take weekends off). But when he does Ghost out it is Cage doing the motion capture, and you can tell. He got really into it. You can read about his, uh, unorthodox methods in the caption to the right here, and hopefully they’ll have some footage of that when the movie comes out on the home video. In fact there could be a feature length documentary about him channeling ancient Egyptian powers and voodoo gods and scaring everybody on set.
Instead of just seeming like a video game, this time the Ghost Rider character made me think of one of the best uses of motion capture of all time, which is in the unreleased-in-the-U.S. Michael Jackson video GHOSTS when he tears off his own skin, becomes a non-flaming skeleton, then does a big dance number (including a moonwalk). You watch that and you know immediately that it’s not frame-by-frame-animation because you know nobody could make it move like that except the real Michael.
Cage’s movements aren’t as distinct as Michael Jackson’s, of course, but they are recognizable. He does his rock star thing. You know how in VAMPIRE’S KISS and DEADFALL he throws in all those Mick Jagger poses? This demon does some of that. The first time he’s skeletal he stands in the middle of some villains and intimidates them with a little bit of Elvis swagger – or at least that’s what I thought it was, but later I read that he based his performance on the movements of some cobras he had as pets until his neighbors complained. But it doesn’t matter that I had no idea what the fuck he was doing. That was some good, weird shit.
He doesn’t get to bust out a full-on “AM I GETTING THROUGH TO YOU. ALVA!?” freak out, but there are traces of it. Occasionally he seems like Castor Troy with his face all the way off. You sense Cage’s presence even without the aid of facial expression. Or eyes. And there are a few bits of mega-acting in scenes where he gets to have a face, in particular the one where he talks about feeling the skeleton thing inside him itching to get out. There’s even a scene where he wakes up in a hospital, flirts with a nurse and then starts demanding painkillers. It seemed like a self-homage to THE BAD LIEUTENANT, although there are no lizards in the scene.
You know, I hope they keep making these Marvel Comics b-movies. Yeah, some of the ten-billion-dollar-superstar-cast-state-of-the-art-CGI-summer-tentpole-franchise-trademark-property ones from the side of the Dr. Pepper cans are alot of fun, but if this super hero thing is gonna be a real genre there should be some more down and dirty ones too. Of course the first two BLADEs are the best comic book movies ever made, and the three PUNISHERs are fun, and then I’m okay with these ones existing although I would prefer something of a high quality. You gotta miss some before you hit ’em I guess.
If they want to make more BLADE movies but they’re gonna be assholes about it and not use Wesley I think Idris Elba gives a pretty good audition here. I’ll approve it if they promise to give some other character to Michael Jai White.
But if they ever make a GHOST RIDER part 3 I think it really is time to see The Rider integrating into society more. Don’t fear the absurd. In this one I thought it was funny just to see him carrying a kid (it looked like the kid’s hair would catch on fire). Now I think it’s time to see him buy hot dogs, carry balloons, get arrested, testify to a Senate subcommittee, give an old lady a supportive back rub during a murder trial, etc. In a tribute to MATCHSTICK MEN and BAD LIEUTENANT the Rider should flip out while trying to pick up Johnny Blaze’s painkillers at the pharmacy. Cage is getting the hang of this character and the movie around him has plenty of room for improvement. I’ll be there for the matinee.
APPENDIX 1: dimensionality notes:
Neveldine/Taylor’s style is kind of like if Michael Bay mixed his sperm with a bunch of pixie sticks sugar and used it to impregnate South Park or Family Guy. They’re more interested in doing a stunt while holding the camera than in aiming it at something. They like doing quick cutaways to little smart ass things they think are funny. But they don’t like ever calming down, building suspense or tension or paying any attention to rhythm.
Brian Taylor, to digitaltrends.com:
“So we might be our own worst enemy in terms of [us being] so bored by everything all the time that we’re always cutting and going faster. It’s kinda become our thing. We’re always talking about how on the PlayStation 3 you can watch a movie at 1.5x speed with sound. It’s perfect.”
“That’s how I watch all the DGA and WGA screeners every year. I just watch ‘em on 1.5x,” Neveldine chimed in, completely serious.
“So an hour and a half movie you can watch in 60 minutes. That, to us, is perfect. If we could break the 60-minute barrier and actually come out with a one-hour feature film, that’d be perfect for us.”
Because of the spastic camerawork and editing of their previous joints I was convinced that this would be the 3D movie that would actually cause serious eye injuries to viewers and throw the industry into chaos. On the other hand there was a chance that Tayveldine, being professional camera operators, would take the challenge of 3D seriously and try to photograph the movie in a way that humans could watch and understand using eyes. Or if not they would at least have a hard time with the heavier cameras and would have no choice but to keep them kind of steady instead of tying them to bungee cords and shooting them out of slingshots and shit.
But of course they took the coward’s way out, just shot the thing the same stupid way they always do and let some other asshole worry about trying to make it into fake 3D in a computer. So I continued my boycott of fake 3D and saw it with only two Ds.
I tried to ask around and most people said the fake 3D version looks as flat as most fake 3D, so hopefully I made the right decision. I can’t imagine the opening scenes, where the camera wiggles and shakes all over the place (I think they did it on rollerskates again), could be anything but painful if they actually looked 3D. The only part I regretted seeing flat was an animated part where Ghost Rider’s eyes project spotlights into the audience to search for illegal downloaders.
(Yeah, they occasionally throw really lame jokes in here, but most of them are 15-20 years more dated than that. There’s actually a joke about Jerry Springer being the devil. Nothing about Judge Ito or Monica Lewinsky, I’m afraid. Maybe they play funnier with the glasses on, though.)
APPENDIX B: My proudest moment since flipping off Dick Cheney
As I’ve mentioned a couple times before, I am a long time subscriber to the Fangoria horror magazine. Magazines were a type of paper product that was used before you guys were born but believe me, it was awesome. In the past year or two Fangoria has undergone major changes and in my opinion is starting to get real good, they have interviews with surprising people and do alot more retrospectives of the classics and what not.
Last month’s issue (February 2012, Fangoria #310) had a cover story on “Nicolas Cage: Master of Horror.” They have a good interview with him talking about SPIRIT OF VENGEANCE, his love of WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS and some other movies throughout his career, including VAMPIRE’S KISS. When the issue arrived I skimmed it and had it sitting around for weeks, then one morning before work I finally got around to it. At one point in the interview Cage talks about the differences between Ghost Rider in part 1 and part 2:
He’s on the lam in Eastern Europe, he’s been living with the curse for years and he’s not as innocent; he’s much more cynical. And this time I really got to experiment with that kind of “mega-acting” I do, when things go into an operatic display.
Did you see that shit? That’s right, Cage used the word “mega-acting,” which I coined to describe his style of acting. I had read that he didn’t like being called “over the top,” and I realized that calling what he did “overacting” wasn’t accurate since it was a deliberate artistic choice to act at that level. It wasn’t over, it was a direct hit. He just aimed at a different target than most actors do.
Frequent outlawvern.com commenter Mr. Fred Topel was kind enough to ask Cage in an interview about the phrase and if he thought it was accurate, and apparently he must’ve liked it enough that he remembered it a couple years later while at home in the Bahamas enjoying Bloody Marys and snail dicks with the guy from Fangoria. I mean, it would be pretty cool if he used it in Time Magazine or US News and World Report or something, but for it to be in Fangoria is almost like a personal thank-you to me from the Lord.
(it is possible that he has also used it in those magazines, but I don’t read those magazines, I read Fangoria.)
It’s a good interview, I recommend it. It also continues in this month’s issue, the one with Vincent Price holding Peter Lorre’s severed head on the cover. In part 2 “mega-acting” is used twice, once in a caption about FACE/OFF and once by the interviewer.
So, you know, I think it’s time to take this writing thing to the next level. I am a word coiner now. I demand to be taken seriously. Please send money and jobs.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.