By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic
Alternating from unintelligible to amateurishly surreal, the Marvel Comics-based “Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance” causes me to speculate that this is the outcome when those 100 monkeys put in a room with 100 typewriters fail to write the Great American Novel. Expecting the guilty thrills of junk food cinema, I was fed Third World prison leftovers.
Starring the same Nicolas Cage who was so great in “Moonstruck” (1987) and won an Oscar for his leading role in “Leaving Las Vegas” (1995), there is irony here in that his lead character, stunt motorcycle rider Johnny Blaze, has made a deal with the Devil. Doing here the showbiz equivalent, only he can say if the artistic denigration is worth it.
Like the professional athlete who shoots steroids to increase his earning power, except that taking shoddy roles for big money is legal, it’s almost acceptable if the actor gains an alternate, iconic status among Saturday night adolescents. While Mr. Cage has done so to a degree, alas he is aging and cannot walk said edge with the aplomb of a Dennis Hopper.
Appearing as if both he and his stuntman phoned in their ignominious deeds through the latest app, it’s all blue screen, special effects and Cage doing that weary hangdog thing, albeit punctuated with rare tidbits of wry wit. This minor plaudit suggests that he didn’t plunge into a total stupor to bear this insult…that it needn’t have been quite this bad.
But never mind what directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor might have done to redeem this haphazard mixture of incongruous elements. A task as daunting and futile as cleaning the Augean stables, the time might be better spent pondering the meaning of life, or perhaps even figuring how to knock sense into our Congressional obstructionists.
Writers Scott Gimple, Seth Hoffman and David S. Goyer have doubtless completed Freshman English #101, evidenced by a desire to randomly roll all the plot cues and character motivations they’ve learned into one big giambotta. Possessing none of the cinematic spice needed to magically ennoble lowly ingredients, it is barely palatable.
Adding insult to injury, even the supposedly all-out action scenes are belied by an all too obvious CGI phoniness. Instead of scintillating derring-do, the filmmakers content themselves with propounding the concept that, once he makes the metamorphosis from stunt rider to biker possessed, Johnny’s motorcycle turns into one big flamethrower.
I was willing to make a mini deal with Mephistopheles, wherein I’d forgive the film its dramatic inanities in return for a revived desire to go out, buy a Triumph motorcycle and reply, “Whaddaya got?” if someone asked, “Hey Mike, what are you rebelling against?” But no soap. Thus, both the foppish film critic and the boy racer in me were disappointed.
Now, Rule #39, part B of the Film Critic’s Constitution, given to every sophomore at Olde Ivy Film Criticism College, is perfectly clear about it. I quote: “Even if a movie is deemed entirely bereft of redeeming value, it behooves the critic, no matter how pointless it seems, to, in the very least, synopsize the plot.” I always liked the use of synopsize.
In any case, true to the old school tie, here’s what I think occurs. Back in issue #1, plain old “Ghost Rider” (2007), Cage’s Johnny Blaze, desperate to save his dying dad, was duped into making a deal with the Devil. Well, in this sequel that contract carries over to haunt him, pun shamelessly intended. Natch, he’d like to divest himself of Mr. Scratch.
However, there being no Daniel Webster to argue his case, he’s going to have to utilize what scattered, loose-leafed and assorted notions of booga-booga are made available to him through a series of discoveries that play out like an uninspired scavenger hunt. Call it a confusing, wannabe bad and hip, nihilistic version of Chutes and Ladders.
Clues come in human and supernatural forms, as well as from combinations thereof, beginning with the Continentally accented, fellow biker Moreau’s arrival and subsequent petition of Mr. Blaze at his Eastern European hideout. You see, informs Moreau (Idris Elba), the Devil, here called Roarke and played by Ciarán Hinds, needs his help.
This means there may be a chance for renegotiation. It all has to do with Roarke’s desire for a little transubstantiation. That is, his need to find a new mortal form to inhabit whilst being his bad self on Earth. Do this thing for him, Ghost Rider, and you’ll be bedeviled no more. But this also means no more supernatural powers. Hmm, will he miss it?
I won’t tell you whose body Beelzebub wants. Only that the contrivance involves pretty Nadya (Violante Placido) and her son, Danny (Fergus Riordan). But who’s Danny’s daddy? If you really care, just hope Nadya goes on Maury Povich’s show. Because if forced to see “Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance,” you’ll be the one seeking retribution.
“Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance,” rated PG-13, is a Columbia Pictures release directed by Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor and stars Nicolas Cage, Violante Placido and Ciarán Hinds. Running time: 95 minutes
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