It’s time again for your resident Contrarian Fanboy to explore another unpopular opinion. Today I am excited to write about a movie that I purposefully let slip under my radar and avoided in theaters, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance.
Let’s get one thing out of the way: Ghost Rider is a cool character, but he’s by no means a great character. Spider-Man is a great character. Batman is another. Those two guys deserve great movie adaptations, but Ghost Rider deserves a different kind of film.
Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance is just that kind of film. Neveldine/Taylor’s Crank-ed up sequel/reboot didn’t get my attention initially because after the train wreck that was the first GR film, I couldn’t stand the idea of being let down again. So I stuck my head in the sand and prayed to my heathen gods that one day we would see an accurate representation. Man, am I glad I decided to spend the $1 at my local RedBox on a boring night. Now I plan to shell out the $20 for the Blu-ray, to place this film alongside my other Marvel movies.
Forget what you have seen in any comic book movie, because that shit goes right out the window very quickly once the Marvel Knights banner flashes by. Idris Elba, always in top form, is our gateway into the film, and into the mythos that the script mandates in order to bring substance to the anti-hero Ghost Rider. Elba plays Morrow, a whimsical wino with a knowledge of what’s to come, and what role Johnny Blaze plays in the event.
Danny, a 13-year old kid with a gypsy mother, is the seed of Rourke, who is the living embodiment of the devil on Earth. Roarke plans to possess the boy and control his newer, stronger body, as was his deal with the mother years prior. This movie does what is very difficult to do; brings together supernatural forces and vague religious dogma that never beats you over the head or seems too forced. The power of the deal is the focus here, and while it seems impossible to properly define the devil’s power, SOV is able to do so by showing him in a weakened form and deteriorating every time he uses his power. Therein lies the plot.
Yes, there is a plot. At a briskly paced 95 minutes, it doesn’t require much, beyond expanding on the Rider’s story, and getting all the characters in the right place at the right time. Meanwhile, we see Johnny Blaze trying to hide from the world, afraid of his dark power(also gained by making a deal with Roarke), and quite aggravated when Morrow shows up with a mission for The Rider.
Let’s get something else cleared up: Nicholas Cage is cool actor. He’s not a great actor, and unless you’re being ironic I doubt that you can disagree that he’s made some bold, but also some terrible, acting choices. Not that he chooses roles unwisely, though that could be part of the problem. He just seems to swing back and forth from the safe, box office-draw actioner(Next, National Treasure, Knowing), and the truly insane roles in which he is allowed to take giant bites out of scenes seemingly as an exercise in satisfying his own ego, as in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. But even in that film, there are moments of pure genius breaking through, in Cage’s own way. The guy obviously knows how ridiculous he can be, often perched precariously on the fine line between overacting and actually tapping into an intense emotional channel from an otherworldly psyche.
I will go so far as to say that this is one of Cage’s best roles since Raising Arizona. He truly captures the insanity that must be inherent to being host to such a curse, the inner struggle that he must maintain to keep the Rider in check, because the Rider isn’t just a threat to movie villains, but to any who have wronged others. But when Blaze begins to lose his grip on the demon, and its hunger overwhelms him, the transformation is jarring and intense, amplified by Neveldine/Taylor’s kinetic camera work. Nic Cage, even in the more quiet and personal moments, shows such a strong range of conflicted emotion that I began to feel empathy for him and his curse. His scenes with Morrow(Elba) are especially good, as Elba’s talent easily balances Cage’s eccentric style, almost causing Cage to yield to the better actor at times.
Sure, there are moments of “WTF?”, and outright weird gestures and movements by the Rider himself, but as off-putting as those were, I also quickly realized that I was sufficiently weirded out in the best way possible. Which, if in real life a dude with a flaming skull on a motorcycle showed up to grant me my just desserts, I’d be fracking weirded out for sure, and so would you.
The comedy is sparse but effective. The infamous scene of Ghost Rider pissing fire is more appropriate for the story than I could have guessed, and Blaze’s bond with Danny is reminiscent of the relationship between John Connor and The Terminator in that franchise’s second outing.
The horror aspect was played up as well as can be done in a PG-13 superhero film, and Ghost Rider’s mythology was well-written to ‘flesh’ out the character beyond even what I have seen in many of the comics. The ‘Spirit of Justice’-turned-insane ‘Spirit of Vengeance’ was a fantastic touch, allowing Ghost Rider to overcome his own curse in a profoundly human way and use it to become something greater. Many of these elements were glazed over in the first film, and I was delighted to see it here.
The one minor gripe I have was with the villain, Carrigan, who was set up well enough at first, but once he gains evil decay powers from Roarke, there are a few silly scenes that diminished the dread for that character. But since he isn’t the real villain of the story, but the pawn of the devil, I let it slide, and Carrigan did indeed have a few excellent scenes doing some wicked things. I am still trying to understand though, why his hair had to grow twice as long once he died and became a demon or whatever. I suppose these things happen when you get touched by Satan.
All in all, I am very pleased that I can now add a solid Ghost Rider film to my collection, and even if it inexplicably has a lower rating than the original on Rotten Tomatoes, I am unashamed to say so. If you are into odd film styles like Crank, and want to see Ghost Rider have justice done upon him, you should pick this one up. It isn’t going to go down in any record books as something Nolan or Whedon have done, but in the annals of oddball films with indie appeal and plenty of action and humor, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance will remain along with the likes of Fight Club and Wanted.