Marvel’s flaming skull is back
The second attempt to ignite a franchise based on Marvel’s flame-headed anti-hero, Spirit of Vengeance is a modestly entertaining slice of supernatural nonsense, enlivened by a bug-eyed performance from Nicolas Cage. With its 2007 predecessor largely forgotten by the masses, this follow-up starts afresh, even going so far as to rewrite Ghost Rider’s origin via a neat animated opening sequence (in much the same way that The Incredible Hulk hit the reset button after Ang Lee’s underrated adaptation). Bereft of a blockbuster budget however, Ghost Rider 2 looks a much cheaper exercise than comic book fans are used to these days; yet it somehow feels more at home in this leaner and less glossy B-movie world. Nevertheless, only die-hard fans or those with low expectations need apply.
Johnny Blaze (Cage) is struggling to control the curse placed on him by the Devil: when night comes, he turns in to the Ghost Rider, the Devil’s bounty hunter. Instead of claiming souls for Satan however, he uses his powers to hunt down wrongdoers. Hiding out in Eastern Europe, Blaze once again crosses paths with the Devil (now going by the name of Roarke and looking uncannily like Ciarán Hinds) when the Evil One tries to kidnap a young boy whose life he needs in order to continue walking the Earth. Joining forces with the boy’s mother (Violante Placido) and maverick French priest Moreau (Idris Elba), Blaze finds he cannot easily outrun his curse.
Ah, Eastern Europe. Where would Hollywood be these days if they didn’t have that side of the continent to fall back on when casting swarthy-looking villains or burly henchmen? And more to the point, where else could you film a mid-range blockbuster for half the going rate? So it’s not a major surprise to see this follow-up relocating itself away from the original’s American West setting (even if it was actually filmed in Australia). The unfortunate downside is that it does give the film the feel of a nondescript Steven Seagal dvd vehicle.
Yet the scaled down production is something of a blessing in disguise; the bloated CGI overkill of the first film did nothing to help it find an audience, so switching focus to a more real-world aesthetic seems a sensible move. The special effects are fine; in fact the Ghost Rider actually works better onscreen here than before. Cage himself gets to play the Rider this time around, allowing him to add some amusing quirks to its character through body movement and gestures. Directing duo Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor (Crank) inject some of their trademark energetic camerawork in to the action scenes, which at least stops the film from ever getting dull (though the 3D is a dismal failure).
But taking a comic-book hero steeped in Americana out of America is perhaps less wise. If the first film had any charm, it lay in its love of the Old West and the biker culture that saw itself as its spiritual descendant. In its most memorable scene, Cage’s Blaze rides his motorbike across the desert alongside Carter Slade (Sam Elliott), the last cowboy and original Ghost Rider, on his horse. None of that is carried over here, despite Mark Steven Johnson, writer-director of the original, being credited as Executive Producer (one suspects more out of contractual obligation than for any creative input). Elba’s wine-swilling priest is the most interesting character onscreen, but even he is no match for Elliott’s Slade. Hinds meanwhile occasionally succeeds in making Roarke a convincing menace, but he has very little to work with in a deeply unimaginative script.
Spirit of Vengeance is very much a mixed bag: it’s slick, tightly put together and occasionally quite fun, but ultimately fails to satisfy. One wonders if a rating above 12A would have permitted a darker, more ambiguous exploration of the character; but perhaps that would run the risk of taking too seriously what is one of Marvel’s more nonsensical creations. So, a comic-book movie starring a loopy Cage fighting it out with low-rent villains in low-budget locations. Enjoy – or not, as the case may be.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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