The Marvel Comics character of Ghost Rider has always been more than a little alternative. Considerably darker and more haunted that contemporaries like Spider-Man and the Hulk, the demonic creation of trio Roy Thomas, Gary Friedrich and Mike Ploog found himself starring in more horror-centric stories, only ocassionally clashing with sunnier heroes in sales-boosting stunts. While the comic creation existed on the fringe of the industry, Mark Steven Johnson's 2007 adaptation "Ghost Rider" was a far more generic, populist attempt to appeal to the masses. It was, by design, a pop song, except it viewed itself as a catchier Massive Attack track when it was more of an O-Town b-side. Bring the kiddies.
Fortunately, the decision to spring for a new creative tream led to "Ghost Rider: Spirit Of Vengeance," which, in intention and execution, is pure metal. Within Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor's film is the spirit of industrial guitars crashing against each other. The picture is lively, unabashedly unafraid to go grandiose or silly, and filled with tasty licks, and wanky, noodley digressions. The character has never been high art, more suited to the side of a van than a library, but the team behind the "Crank" series have crafted an idiosyncratic, bombastic adventure film that properly honors the source material.
Back for another round is star Nicolas Cage, picking up his now-familiar acting tools to play the haunted biker Johnny Blaze. While Cage's typically manic turn in the first film provided a brief respite from the pedestrian plot developments, here his restless energy is more simpatico with the film's tempo. He's hiding away in Budapest, and like other similarly cursed superhero-types, he's about to be called into action. The MacGuffin is a young boy named Danny, pursued by the Devil, known here as Roarke (Ciaran Hinds, ham 'n' egg). Moreau (Idris Elba) is the leader of a rogue sect of monks who can lift the curse from Danny, eliminating Roarke's need for pursuit, with the added bonus of being able to free the hellfire that mutates Blaze into the Ghost Rider.
'Spirit Of Vengeance' maintains no continuity from the previous picture, save for the presence of Cage, and is all the better for it, re-introducing us to a "hero" that's more horror movie monster than dashing prince. With his skull alight, the Ghost Rider spirit takes over Blaze's body and lumbers, slowly, monstrously, towards his victims, with no interest in mercy. The safety one maintains when they watch a bulletproof hero dismantle his opposition is missing, replaced by a reckless attitude that whomever crosses the Rider's path may be roadkill, even those his human alter ego has sworn to protect. When Blaze transforms, sadly robbing us of Cage's trademarked "Mega-Acting," he is no man, but rather a monster. Like heavy metal, the film encourages us to bang our heads as the Devil comes for the souls of the wicked.
Cage has worked with a notorious laundry list of directors over the last few years, some of which have no idea how to deploy this Weapon Of Mass Distraction. What Neveldine and Taylor represent is the proper outlet for this endlessly resourceful, experimental performer to deliver a schizophrenic turn, as both poker-faced hero and tortured maniac. 'Spirit Of Vengeance' makes no effort to convince you that Johnny Blaze is a fun guy to have at a party, or that he's ever going to have a mutually beneficial relationship for the rest of his life, not while it feels like there's a sinister force ready to literally burst through his face. Kinski wept.
In addition to Hinds, giving a jowly, scenery chewing performance befitting his CG-enhanced melting face, Elba is also a treat as a hotshot, gun-slinging monk. Elba, on the verge of Next Big Thing-ism for awhile now, gets to show a dexterity of personality and humor, with a playful smile and a delightfully bad French accent. Somehow, this will probably be his greatest exposure yet. And while the lovely Violante Placido has little to do besides look gorgeous (and how), and the sneering Johnny Whitworth gives a serviceable "sarcastic henchman" turn, the star of the picture might very well be the direction of the hyperactive duo who go by Neveldine/Taylor.
It's no secret that 'Spirit Of Vengeance' carries a significantly lower budget than the first film (along with significantly lower expectations). But while that candy-coated first film blew its wad on money shots like GR motorcycling up skyscrapers, Neveldine/Taylor spotlight practical stunts, car chases, and a worshipful treatment of motorcycles, as a Ghost Rider film should feature. The picture also benefits from quick-moving, witty interstitials and inspired cutaways, by now a Neveldine/Taylor staple. When we're informed via narration about deals with the devil, there's a brief flash of a recreation of the album cover from Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here." The stand-ins? Our directors, injecting themselves into the film with a touch of wit.
'Spirit Of Vengeance' may wear its lawlessness on its sleeve, but it's not tasteless or gratuitous quite like the duo's earlier films. They've matured since "Crank," allowing these sense of humor to permeate everything but the film's actual storyline, giving weight to Blaze's transformations. While the first film didn't seem to make up its mind as to whether Blaze enjoys or loathes becoming Ghost Rider, the filmmakers give Blaze an actual, albeit simplistic, action movie arc, investing the "depowering hero" cliche with a modicum of pathos sans pretension. With minimal screentime wasted (the picture runs at a scant, end credits-assisted 95 minutes), Neveldine and Taylor manage to achieve a sleek b-movie action-horror mashup where most Hollywood hacks would need a trilogy. Dodgy 3D aside (inconsequential, for the most part), "Ghost Rider: Spirit Of Vengeance" is one of the year's early surprises. [B]