It’s happened. The once great Nicolas Cage has been cast forth from the cold purgatorial void of artistic bankruptcy wherein he had been languishing for the past six years, a realm not entirely devoid of hope or the promise of redemption. The benevolent God of cinema surely provided an opportunity for the restoration of his professional credibility post-Wicker Man; something must have landed upon his agent’s desk, manna-like from the heavens, perhaps a supporting role as a handicapable narcoleptic in some micro budget Canadian indie-flick? But that would have paid pennies...
Cage is now a man hurtling through the creative vacuum, plummeting from a thespian limbo to the seventh circle of straight-to-DVD hell. Given the slew of execrable box-office turkeys left in his wake of late you’d wonder how he continues to make movies. We can only surmise that no less than the dark lord himself, Satan, has a cloven hoof in the proceedings, a Faustian deal tendered. Who actually paid to see Knowing and Next in theatres? Legions of spectral wraiths from the blackest pits of hell buffed ticket sales no doubt. Approached in a moment of weakness the impecunious Cage, paying for past profligacy and a penchant for Bavarian Castles, eyes lucent with dollar green, signed on the dotted line. His immortal soul for the perpetuation of his career, this is the only plausible explanation for the existence of so unadulterated a disasterpiece as Ghost Rider:Spirit of Vengeance.
After 2007’s dire premier outing of Marvel Comics flame-skulled anti-hero it must have been apparent to all but the most myopic of number-crunching studio hacks that a marked departure would be required if any sequel/reboot were to be a success. For a time following Spirit of Vengeance’s announcement you’d be forgiven for being curious and even mildly optimistic as to its potential. With the anarchic directorial duo of Crank series helmers Mark Neveldine and John Taylor taking the reins and bolstered by comic book-to-screen speciality scribe David S. Goyer, the presence of a somnambulistic Cage seemed to be negated somewhat. Talk too of a hard R-rating coming down the line and things seemed to be auguring particularly well for the production. There was a sliver of hope...
Conveniently recuperating in Eastern Europe, region of the generous film production tax credit, ex- stunt biker Johnny Blaze (Cage) is finding his recent metamorphosis into an avenging daemon, The Ghost Rider, rather trying. Blaze’s nemesis Satan (Ciarán Hinds) has sought to overcome the fleshy weakness of the human vessels he is forced to possess when stalking the earth by spawning an unholy sproglet with a mortal woman. Imbued with his demonic daddy’s essence the kid should prove to be a more robust receptacle for the devil to wreak havoc from.
Enter dipsomaniacal French “Monk” Moreau (Idris Elba), member of an obscure sub-sect of the Catholic Church whose members aren’t adverse to packing heat in the name of the lord. He seeks to protect child and mother from the dark one's clutches. He fails. Funnily enough the sanctuary sought by Satan’s Slavic babymama Nadya (Violante Placido) for her strangely American-accented son Danny (Fergus Riordan) just so happens to be located in.... Eastern Europe .This ain’t exactly a globetrotting adventure. With mother and son captured by the devil’s earthly minions, Moreau seeks out good ole’ Johnny Blaze and enlists his aid by promising to lift our hero's diabolical taint.
Mere minutes into Spirit of Vengeance and reality hits like a cyanide-tipped .45 Calibre round straight to the brainstem, you’re about to be suffocated beneath a mountain of suck. The PG-13 rating should’ve been a dead giveaway. Seriously though, how in sweet fuck does a plot rife with diabolism and infernal imagery featuring an anti-hero whose Hellraiser-lite aesthetic sees him wielding molten S&M chain flails and feasting on his adversaries souls equate to a 12A project? It doesn’t. What we have here is emasculation by kiddie friendly classification. A directorial gruesome twosome renowned for their grotty, low-Fi stylistics and subversive sensory assaults on the PC brigade effectively neutered. The breath of fresh air that Neveldine and Taylor represented has instead materialised into an inhalation of fetid fail, Spirit of Vengeance just as flaccid as its higher-budgeted predecessor.
With action sequences we’re in censorial cut-away heaven. Thug unloads a MAC-10 machine-pistol into the rider’s mouth. Rider spews forth molten lead at thug. We’re treated to a cut-away, no visible effect of the carnage. Red hot chains wrapping themselves around villains cause our antagonists to erupt in clouds of ash. When the movies sole F-bomb is dropped during the latter third of the narrative you genuinely feel it to be out of place, so sanitised the script heretofore with its impeccably mannered criminal low-lives and mercenaries. There’s no saltiness, no grit. Doubtlessly we can look forward to the obligatory “Unrated” cut, featuring perhaps some CGI claret, cynically sliming its way to DVD in the near future.
Performances are wretched, Cage now seemingly unable to muster the requisite mania even for his own distinctive brand of batshit crazy. An interrogation sequence featuring Blaze undergoing a necrotic metamorphosis whilst spouting intimidating babble at a baddie makes for particularly painful viewing. In fact Cage may as well be wearing a chalkboard round his neck with “I’m acting here” scrawled upon it.
Idris Elba sells his character’s Gallic groove by virtue of saying “merde” at every given opportunity and appears to be acutely aware of the ludicrousness of the production, not so much acting as merely having a laugh. Johnny Whitworth does his best as the thoroughly lame villain Blackout whose satanic power sees him putrefy and disintegrate whatever he so wills by touch. Only the venerable Ciarán Hinds can bring a patina of sophistication to this lacquered turd of a flick, his Mephistophelean schtick and snarling stoke-victim delivery as the evil one providing Vengeance’s sole enjoyable turn.
Effects-wise the piece is a mixed bag, the standard fluctuating between superbly detailed realisations of the rider in full fettle, the leather of his jacket frayed and smouldering to the kind of crappy composites one would expect of a final year multimedia students Adobe After Effects project. The script’s a chaotic black hole of random shit happening and rife with one-liners so toe curlingly bad as to make the moronic kiss-off lines of 80’s action cinema seem positively profound. As a character Johnny Blaze receives all the development of a stunted foetus. It’s just Nic Cage in a leather jacket.
The puerile humour of Neveldine and Taylor that so complemented Crank’s videogame verité stylistics falls face flat here too. Take their predilection for a urinary sight-gag that sees the Ghost Rider peeing flame. It’s goofy the first time round but using it a second time as an insert shot during a scene which should be dripping with menace between Satan and the kidnapped Danny is wholly misjudged, diminishing any sense of peril.
A locational predominance of post-industrial East-European desolation typified by factory sheds, patches of waste ground and empty stretches of highway only serves to accentuate the budget-conscious, Syfy Channel “Movie of the Week” cheapness of the production.
Facetiousness aside, Spirit of Vengeance is just plain awful and it pains me to unleash a 50 canon barrage of negativism but hey, if it reeks it reeks. It’s no easy task making a movie; legion problems can beset a feature from overzealous scissor-handed studio exec’s to on-set creative clashes and I’m sure copious amounts of blood, sweat and tears were put into Ghost Rider’s making. Sadly the effort has failed to translate anything of merit to the screen, the film only serving to lead-line the sarcophagus of Nick Cage’s career. Choose to remember him how he was, whether spazzing out with reckless abandon in Deadfall or delivering a scintillating turn in Moonstruck. Certainly choose to forget the rash of filmic haemorrhoids that is Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance.