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Review - Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance

19 May 2012
Nicolas Cage and the guys behind Crank make a movie about a flaming skeleton on a motorcycle. You want to see this!


Still afflicted by the curse of the Ghost Rider, Johnny Blaze (Nicolas Cage) flees to Eastern Europe where he has the misfortune to come between the Devil (Ciaran Hinds) and a young boy chosen as his next vessel. Whena group of warrior monks offer Johnny his soul back in return for the child, the Rider heads out on his latest mission.

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance must seem like a doomed proposition – following on from 2007s dull origin story and starring the frequently dotty Cage at a time when his name is synonymous with a string of near disasters. But, against all odds and possibly even common sense, Spirit of Vengeance is a riotously enjoyable film.

Much of that success is down to new directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor. Since debuting with Crank, they’ve been building up a fanbase with a series of uniquely off the wall projects. To the casual observer, it might have just seemed like a couple of guys who like shooting Jason Statham doing crazy shit while roller-blading at 40 miles per hour but the duo have been subtly building up their brand, waiting for the opportunity to present their particular style to a wider audience.

And here it is. With a budget in the region of $75 million and a comic book franchise at a major studio, Spirit of Vengeance is Neveldine/Taylor’s calling card to Hollywood, and the world, that they can deliver the goods in a more commercial setting.

It doesn’t hurt that they have found a perfect leading man in Cage. While he may lack Statham’s amiably athletic appeal, Cage does have one thing going for him – the man be crazy. Here, the actor takes the character of Blaze/Ghost Rider and just runs with it, embodying a man with an actual demon living inside of him with a performance that is nothing short of inspired. Blaze is not only aware of the ridiculousness of his current situation but he frequently comments on it and Cage also commits totally to the darker moments. An early interrogation scene is one of the more hilarious moments I’ve seen on film all year, complete with the kind of keening voice work which wouldn’t be out of place in Vampire’s Kiss but, in this context, it works a charm.

Cage has been open in interviews about his process for the film – painting his face like a skull and sewing voodoo charms into his costumes and the interactions with his co-stars sometimes reek of a kind of guarded fear. They all go about their business, getting through their lines in a highly professional manner while Cage explores his character in unusual ways – in one scene drinking an entire jug of water during an otherwise normal moment of exposition. But it’s scenes like this that confirm Cage is not merely acting bizarre and hoping some of it works, the moment lightens the mood of the scene and also makes sense to the character – being on fire probably makes you quite thirsty.

Neveldine and Taylor are known for some particularly high octane filmmaking and while things are a little less frenetic here than in Crank, they also take great pains to present action in as visceral and unique a way as possible. Camera angles are intimate and sometimes death defying – check out the video below for some examples – and the car scenes in particular are breathtaking. The filmmakers are also clearly embracing the opportunities offered by their largest budget yet, bathing the film in some highly effective CG during the Ghost Rider moments and crafting some surprisingly large scale set pieces.

Their work on the Rider himself is also impressive. As we heard in our recent interview with Mark Neveldine, the pair came on board quite late in pre-production but still managed to spend some time putting their stamp on the character. Compared to the clean and rather cartoonish 2007 iteration, this Ghost Rider is burnt and blackened, while the material of his jacket blisters and flames lick around exposed bone – and also spread to any vehicle he touches. With much improved CG and combined with the movements, and occasional dialogue, of Cage – he’s one of the more memorable comic book characters to take to the screen since Wolverine unsheathed his adamantium claws.

Apart from the CG, the filmmakers also make great use of some stunning and refreshingly unfamiliar real world locations. The latter half of the film sees the party travel to a fantastical rocky desert filled with caves and tunnels shot at Zelve in Cappadocia in central Turkey, while the finale was filmed in the ruins of Hierapolis in Eastern Turkey – an ancient Greco-Roman city. It’s not only a wonderful way to be introduced to such places but also adds a massive amount of production value to what remains a modestly budgeted film.

Cage is so engaging on screen that the supporting cast is left with little to do but all are serviceable, including demon fodder Fergus Riordan and his mother Violante Placido. Johnny Whitworth plays a somewhat forgettable villain, despite some cool powers and Idris Elba can’t quite manage to be funny and French but is unable to not be cool while it’s great to see Christopher Lambert wielding a sword . Only Ciaran Hinds manages to make much of an impression, chiefly by sharing few scenes with Cage. The darkness within him is slowly eating away at the character, leading to an appearance which resembles nothing so much as a post-stroke Albert Finney but the actor seems to be relishing the role.

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance is far from a perfect film but it is an impressive distillation of the Neveldine/Taylor aesthetic into a more mainstream form, while also retaining much of what their fans expect. It’s a marked improvement on the dull 2007 effort, features a manic, charming and hilarious performance from leading man Cage and slips in enough self aware humour and genuine laughs to keep most audiences entertained. In case it isn’t clear, I loved it and my score reflects that of a Neveldine/Taylor fan. If you’re yet to discover the duo, prepare for some inspired comic book mayhem!

For the record:the post converted 3D on offer is the best I’ve yet seen. The picture is clear and there’s a frequent sense of depth, with sparing use of presence that rarely seems forced, but if you can’t get to a 3D screening you won’t miss much.
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