Film scholars are always quick to point out that everything in a movie is there for a reason and to evoke a response from the audience. It’s a sound concept in theory, but when I have the misfortune of sitting through films like Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, there’s really no defense for what is essentially a clusterfuck of meaningless bullshit.
Ghost Rider, a C-list Marvel Comics character, is no stranger to bad adaptations. Rights holder Sony Pictures’ first attempt at a Ghost Rider film back in 2007 failed with flying colors. Its gross amounted to over $100 mil however, which apparently translates to audience demand for another film in the minds of studio executives. While I felt the 2007 film had its heart in the right place for what was a largely reverential adaptation, writer/director Mark Steven Johnson simply lacked the talent required for such a production. The film’s poor execution, however, centered on Johnson’s woeful miscasting of Johnny Blaze in the form of Academy Award winner Nicolas Cage. Cage, a fan of the character and a big screen presence, was too big a name and too big a personality to fit the requirements of the young, haunted Blaze. In the end, audiences didn’t see Blaze, they saw Cage.
Despite the failure, there was still plenty of potential left to produce a better adaptation. Instead of doing that, however, Sony began working on Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance on a rushed timetable. Currently, Sony’s lease on the Ghost Rider film rights is only on the condition that they produce a new film every few years, lest the rights revert back to Marvel Studios. Back in 2010, the company realized they’d soon be without a potentially profitable superhero property and quickly began hurrying ahead with a new film. Executives dusted off a rejected draft of the first Ghost Rider film written by David Goyer of Blade and Batman Begins fame over a decade ago and rehired Nicolas Cage to play the lead. Commissioning cult directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor (Crank, Gamer) to helm the sequel/reboot/”whatever”, Sony greenlit the production with a $90 million budget and hoped for the best on a film that absolutely no sane person wanted or expected anything from.
Thus began Spirit of Vengeance, a film which follows former motorcycle stuntman Johnny Blaze (Cage), now plagued with transformations into a demon with a flaming skull known as the Ghost Rider after selling his soul to the devil. On the run in Europe, Blaze is found by Moreau (Idris Elba), a priest who offers to lift Blaze’s curse in exchange for his help in saving a young boy named Danny (Fergus Riordan) and his mother (Violante Placido). The mother/son pair is being pursued by Roark (Ciaran Hinds), the devil’s earthly incarnate who wants Danny to be his new, less frail vessel. Blaze and his alter-ego must save Danny and evade Roark’s latest lackey, Blackout (Johnny Whitworth).
Spirit of Vengeance is, quite simply, a mess. From the outset, the viewer is assaulted with a loud, bizarre, unlikable directorial sensibility that lacks logic or meaning of any kind. Neveldine and Taylor’s visual vocabulary is one of incoherent baby talk, making the film feel as empty as it is thoughtless. Featuring nauseating cinematography (largely in the form of grating shaky-cam sequences) and entirely trivial staging, the film somehow manages to be a chore just to look at. I found myself frequently asking the timeless question…why? Why is this happening? Why does this movie look like it was made by a spastic ten-year-old? Why subject us to the occasional random animated cutaway, terrible Nic Cage voiceover and all, that makes the live-action sequences look passable in comparison? Why does one such cutaway choose to splice in a shot of Jerry Springer for no reason?
Narratively, Spirit of Vengeance isn’t any better. Lacking a stable guiding force, and thus real structure to keep everything grounded, the film’s plot doesn’t so much progress as it does wildly careen towards a finish line. Bizarrely, the film saves vital expository information (why Danny is important, why Roark wants him, why any of this is happening to begin with, you know…plot) for the middle of the third act, meaning during the first two acts, the audience is left in an unintelligible nightmare of a film just trying to decifer a meaning behind the madness.
And that’s the least of its problems. Neveldine and Taylor’s aforementioned “style” suffocates and jumbles a simple, straightforward narrative and reassembles it into a convoluted, near-incomprehensible mess. These guys managed to take a bad script a make it even worse. That’s aside from the fact that the narrative itself is even more shallow than the directors behind it, lacking depth, tension, character drama, and just about anything else that fulfills the baseline expectations for a legitimate film.
Spirit of Vengeance‘s sense of humor is nonexistent, though not for lack of trying. Unwatchable cutaway “gags” of Ghost Rider peeing fire are just about the lowest of the low and truly make one realize just how close to rock bottom the film comes to. The action sequences are some of the worst in recent memory, completely devoid of tension and weight. While there’s at least been some concerted effort put forth behind the scenes (Neveldine and Taylor risked heavy injury just to get their shots), it’s little merit when the final product leaves nothing to show for it, and amounts to little more than a pair of dangerously insane men playing with action figures.
The characters themselves are merely useless tools of the plot and barely worth mentioning at all. Cage’s Johnny Blaze is of course an absolutely butchered version of the comic incarnation, and though the actor puts forth more effort here than in his sleepwalking turn in the 2007 film, his misplaced passion only calls more attention to the fact that he was completely, horribly wrong for this part since the beginning.
I’ll admit that at the very least, the script got the dual personality dynamic right this time around, portraying a darker, wearier Blaze who shares equal screentime with his alter-ego the Rider, also played by Cage and treated as a separate character from Blaze himself. Any sense of intrigue or sympathy we might feel, however, is lost in Cage’s hugely unlikable performance. Cage can be a great actor in films like Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant that require his trademark Cage-iness, but under the obnoxious lens of Neveldine and Taylor, he plays Blaze far too over-the-top and far too annoying to manage being even laughably bad. Cage’s Rider misses the mark entirely – while credit is due for a considerably more effective CG flaming skull design than the 2007 film, all effectiveness is lost when the Rider begins, and I’m not kidding here, floating around in mid-air on his back in the middle of an action sequence.
I am, of course, saying all this having known full well long beforehand that Spirit of Vengeance was going to be a piece of shit. What I failed to predict, however, was just how mind-numbingly bad the film would turn out to be. Admittedly, I held fleeting hopes that Spirit of Vengeance would be a “so-bad-it’s-good”-type movie, with the filmmakers essentially saying, “Alright, we know this is a joke. You all know this is a joke. And we hope you’re laughing just as hard as we are.” Maybe that’s exactly what Neveldine and Taylor set out to say, but the point is missed when the lights go up and they’re the only ones laughing.
This is not an entertaining film even in a morbid or ironic sense. It’s actually rather boring once you realize that it’s just loud, stupid garbage that will never make any sense no matter how far you get into it. This is an utterly lifeless waste of film and a thoroughly unpleasant experience that exudes a level of pointlessness I rarely see even in the worst of films. I look forward to the day when Marvel Studios regains the Ghost Rider rights from Sony and can finally produce a movie that does this character justice. Lesson learned – leave the niche characters to filmmakers who know what they’re doing.