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Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance

February 19, 2012
Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance

I’m trying to figure out how it is that Ghost Rider could be so terrible and Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance could be not. After considered deliberation, I’ve concluded that it’s basically the difference between Mark Steven Johnson directing and Neveldine/Taylor. The story is every bit as contrived and stupid as the original, but Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor bring their same over-the-top, almost experimental approach to direction from the Crank films and infuse it with Sam Raimi’s fantastic B-movie sensibility. It’s silly, but it was also fun for me to watch.

The script lays out the essential plot points with ruthless efficiency, starting with a recap of last time: Johnny Blaze (Nicholas Cage) made a deal with the devil (now Ciarán Hinds) and was possessed by the Ghost Rider — a fiery, skull-headed demon with chain whips and the ability to consume evil souls. He’d like nothing more than to be rid of it, since it’s getting harder and harder to keep it in line, which leads to some histrionics and rubber-faced, CGI-enhanced antics that I’d put up there with the sillier of Bruce Campbell’s scenes in Army of Darkness.

He gets an offer of help from Moreau (Idris Elba) — an alcoholic French priest who asks that Johnny find and keep safe a young boy. The boy, Danny (Fergus Riordan), and his mother, Nadya (Violante Placido), are on the run from a gang, led by Nadya’s former boyfriend, Ray Carrigan (Johnny Whitworth), who is employed by the devil to track the boy down and bring him back before the winter solstice. Seriously, this is not any sort of groundbreaking stuff in the field of storytelling.

But where Ghost Rider was merely corny and awkward, Neveldine and Taylor have run with it as a base onto which they can graft their own visuals. The traditional camerawork alone is fantastic; a highway scene halfway through brings the story to a dead stop, but provides a great palette to see what these guys can do with filming motorcycle stunts. And whoever was manning the editing machine loves the speed dial; almost every establishing shot is riddled with jerky pans.

And then there are the cutaways, particularly the animated ones used to accent otherwise dry patches of narration. This is, after all, a comic book movie, and it looks nowhere so much like one as in these scenes. Also in this pile, I’ll throw the flashback to Johnny signing his deal, which seems to have been lifted directly from Sin City in its style.

In a lot of ways this movie tries to get closer to the comics. Not only is Blaze the rough alcoholic he always was meant to be, but late in the second act we meet another of the devil’s minions based largely on the appearance of Blackout, one of the comic’s villains. Neveldine and Taylor’s interpretation of his light-blotting abilities makes for yet another striking visual leitmotif.

As for the 3-D, again I think the directors acquit themselves nicely; they stay out in the sun or in bright locales more than you might expect, they use it mostly as a diorama, and they resist the urge to throw things at the audience. Overall, I doubt you’d miss much in 2-D, but for one little trick they pull during some of the chase scenes. Since they know better than to adjust focus — decent 3-D cinematography uses an enormous depth of field so that no region is glaringly out of focus should the audience look there — they try to emulate a common use of a zoom lens in action scenes by actually stretching and compressing the entire stereo-optic stage front to back in quick succession.

Now, this is not to say that all of these visual tricks “work”. The last one, in particular, felt dizzying and disorienting. But it seems like Neveldine and Taylor knew that this movie was going to be schlock no matter what they did, and so they used it as a playground to test out some of their latest moves. I can’t say the result is great entertainment, but at least I can say I wasn’t bored.

Worth It: honestly, probably not. But if you like watching directors playing around with their craft, it might be.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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