Wednesday, February 29, 2012

709 - Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance review

In “Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance,” Nic Cage and his hairpiece return as Johnny Blaze, the Ghost Rider, a second tier Marvel Comics character whose fans revere by dint of his manufactured awesomeness. With his flaming skull head, his motorcycle spitting fire, and Satanic origin, Ghost Rider was one of the silliest characters in a silly medium, but in this sequel that status is used as a virtue. His preposterousness is shanghaied into a dose of skillfully absurd amusement.

Set in “Eastern Europe” and filmed in Romania and Turkey, “Ghost Rider 2” functions as both a comic book action film and a surprisingly effective homage. One could be forgiven for anticipating quasi-mindless fanboy fodder, and certainly it could be interpreted that way. Yet my own temptations to view it so kept being undercut by the competence of the manic filmmaking style, the gonzo enthusiasm that makes what could have been mundane into a searing blast of fun.

In this installment, Blaze has fled to Eastern Europe, where he and a biker priest (Idris Elba) find themselves the protector of a boy (Fergus Riordan) and his mother (Violante Placido), both pursued by the Devil (Ciaran Hinds) and an array of mercenaries and demonic hoodlums. The Ghost Rider’s powers seem to render him invincible, though the surprisingly straightforward use of grenades and explosives can throttle him back to the vulnerable mortal form. As one might guess, his exploits unfold through a series of chases and battles with the villains, which see Ghost Rider do a lot of incinerating and commandeering an array of vehicles, most amusingly when he turns a piece of mining machinery into an orange beast of death.

This is actually vastly superior filmmaking to “Captain America,” a washed out, meandering tribute to an era no one misses with a studiously designed to avoid offending the residents of German nursing homes. “Ghost Rider 2” successfully evokes the B-movie spirit that Quentin Tarantino failed at with his “Grindhouse” debacle, which served as a reminder that parody is often mistaken for homage. In this film, the handheld camera work, the desert highway chases, the occult-driven plot, all coalesce together as something sincere, a descendant of everything from “Mad Max” to 70s horror films. Granted, with its thin premise this never for a moment comes close to the poignancy and relevance of truly great comic book films such as “Spider-Man 2” or “The Dark Knight,” but even a decently sincere work such as this will always surpass a well-crafted fraud like “Captain America.”

Cage, who in his rush to suck up every dime not nailed down to alleviate his tax problems, marks his third B-movie with Christian theology as a driving force behind the plot. His volcanic eruption acting style seems thematically appropriate here as he plays a character that literally spits fire. Torment and frustration are what he does best, and I’d be hard-pressed to argue that he doesn’t belong here. Cage even gets a poignant moment where Blaze tells the boy that our darkness as humans can be used for good and need not define who we are, a bit of insightfulness that lends unexpected moral clarity to a narrative that many filmmakers would doubtlessly treat as a mindless excuse for fiery destruction.

“Ghost Rider 2” is directed by Neveldine/Taylor, a team of filmmakers not exactly known for their mannered, elegant work. Remember the “Crank” films, arguably the most offensive films to ever get a wide release? I sometimes wish I didn’t. Those movies managed to violate seemingly every convention of good taste and human decency. However, it stands to reason that in order to be so effective at insulting good sensibilities, an artist must possess them to begin with. Here their strange habits have a rare effect, infusing what would normally be an inert franchise movie with something it badly needs: a soul.

3.5 out of 5

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