Nicolas Cage puts on his letter jacket, lights his skull on fire and hops on his motorcycle once more. Are the results any better this time out?
“It doesn’t matter how far you run, there are some demons you just can’t escape. My name is Johnny Blaze, I used to ride a motorcycle for a living. I did a bare ass 360 triple back flip in front of twenty two thousand people. It’s kind of funny, it’s on Youtube, check it out. But when my dad got sick, I did something way crazier than that.”
Last week here at The Tao of Nicolas Cage I took a look at Ghost Rider and touched on where I think it went wrong. I discussed how the film is problematic and ultimately not that good but I still find it enjoyable. More or less I think I spent last week’s column defending Ghost Rider. This week I’m taking a look at the 2012 sequel, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, a film that shouldn’t need any defending.
There’s no beating around the bush this week. Spirit of Vengeance is awesome and how it’s not universally praised as such I’ll never understand. My assumption is more people hate it than have actually seen it. To those people my gut reaction is to say “piss off,” but I like to think I’m a bigger person than that so instead I will explain why everyone should give this Ghost Rider a chance.
And if you have seen it but still hate it then maybe I can convince you to give it another ride.
The most important thing to know going into Spirit of Vengeance is that director Mark Steven Johnson, who helmed the first film, was replaced by Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, collectively known as Neveldine/Taylor. This is the wonderful duo behind the insane Crank franchise. That’s important because these dudes were born to work with Cage. What’s also important is that you read what our very own Brad Gullickson had to say about Crank but don’t click that link until you finish reading this.
Spirit of Vengeance picks up several years after the events of the first film and it opens with the introduction of a priest named Moreau played by the one and only Idris Elba. Moreau is trying to warn a monastery about an impending attack for which the monks on hand foolish think they’re prepared to handle. When the attack occurs it becomes painfully obvious they’re not and all hell breaks loose.
The attack comes from a mercenary named Ray Carrigan (Johnny Whitworth) who the Devil (Ciarán Hinds) hired to find a young boy named Danny (Fergus Riordan). At the time of the attack Danny is held at the monastery along with his mother, Nadya (Violante Placido), for safekeeping. Moreau attempts to help the mother and child flee for safety but Nadya doesn’t trust him and shoots at him as she takes off with Danny in a car.
What proceeds next is a kick-ass car chase with Ray chasing after Danny and Nadya and Moreau chasing after Ray. Because this is a Neveldine/Taylor movie the chase is wonderfully chaotic and shot to perfection by the extremely talented Brandon Trost. It’s very stylized and features all the manic energy the directors showcased in the Crank films. It reminds me a bit of Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles Without Honor and Humanity, which I admit sounds like it’s coming out of left field. The action sequences in Fukasaku’s film have this frenetic pace to them thanks to the handheld camera approach and this opening scene in Spirit of Vengeance has the same sort of vibe. The key difference is that in Battles Without Honor and Humanity the action sequences are fist fights and in Ghost Rider we’re dealing with a car chase!
Ray and Moreau end up taking one another out which allows Nadya and Danny to speed off. While Nadya and Danny are safe for the time being, Moreau understands that it’s fleeting and if they want to have any shot he’s going to need to bring in the big guns. He needs the Rider (that’s short for Ghost Rider). Using some elite tracking skills Moreau is able to locate Johnny Blaze somewhere in Eastern Europe. Blaze has been hiding out in Europe because he’s unable to control Ghost Rider and that’s not great if you have friends because as we all know Ghost Rider isn’t picky. If you do something wrong, no matter how big or how small, he will eat your soul.
Blaze is not happy about Moreau’s arrival and why should he be? He moved far away from everybody and found a nice little secluded place to keep to himself and here comes this French priest just barging in like he owns place? And what’s the first thing Moreau does? Dumps out Blaze’s booze and breaks a window. Not cool, man, not cool.
As it turns out Moreau isn’t there just to break things. He actually went through all the trouble to find Blaze to offer a proposition — if Blaze can locate Danny and bring him to safety, Moreau’s secret religious organization will be able to reverse his curse. Alright, now Johnny’s listening!
Blaze agrees because he wants his soul released from this terrible curse but it won’t be easy. For starters he now has to try to force Ghost Rider out which is a tad difficult because he’s spent so much time trying to keep him in.
When he finally gets Ghost Rider out his mission begins with chasing down Ray and his goons which isn’t too bad because these are mere mortal men who pose no real threat to a demonic eater of souls like the Rider. Unfortunately things are never as easy as they seem and Ghost Rider soon realizes he also has to deal with the Devil. His relationship with the Devil isn’t great to begin with and it only gets worse when the Devil turns Ray into a demon named Blackout who is arguably just as powerful as Ghost Rider. Chaos ensues!
From the jump Spirit of Vengeance far surpasses anything the first Ghost Rider accomplished. Neveldine/Taylor have this go big or go home approach that is required when operating within this world. That first scene lets you know what you’re in for and from that moment on they just keep trying to top themselves. And somehow they do by later having a chase sequence that’s even more bonkers and off the wall than the first. At one point while standing atop a flaming vehicle that is barreling down a desert highway Ghost Rider grabs Blackout and delivers a Rock Bottom onto another moving vehicle. That is 100% a real thing that happens in this movie and it’s even more glorious than it sounds.
There’s plenty of other crazy nonsense in this film too. That Danny kid, turns out he’s the antichrist! That’s a fun little tidbit. Oh and Johnny describes what it’s like to pee while being Ghost Rider. Hint: it involves a flamethrower. Double hint: he basically says his penis is a flamethrower. Hey now!
Cage carries the film by delivering a stellar performance. That’s right, I said stellar and I’ll fight anyone that disagrees. This Blaze is much more tortured than the Blaze in the first film. Instead of trying to understand what he’s become he’s actively trying to fight it and it’s a fight for his life. He’s fully committed to the role too, going to great lengths to portray his struggle.
“For me, John Blaze, his head is already ignited so when you meet him, he’s in a much different place in this movie than in the other movie,” Cage said in an interview with Collider discussing the film. “It’s almost a completely different character in many ways. A much edgier, almost cynical interpretation than the original or than the Ghost Rider movie.”
Spirit of Vengeance isn’t perfect though, I’ll admit to that. The script is loony with plenty of pieces that don’t make sense. But then is that really a problem? After all Ghost Rider is a character that was given super powers by the Devil and then he uses those powers against the Devil. It’s like why’d the Devil even give him those powers? I don’t know and more importantly I don’t care because it’s awesome.
The CGI is once again not quite up to the task. I wouldn’t say it’s bad necessarily, but it could have been better. It’s still a pretty good step up from the first film but something feels a tad off.
Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance failed at the domestic box office which isn’t too surprising. Movies that go outside the box tend to struggle which is too bad because people are constantly complaining that Hollywood pushes out the same cookie cutter movies. Spirit of Vengeance was an attempt by filmmakers to do something different and audiences shied away.
Part of the beauty of movies are that they live far beyond the box office. Eventually people forget or just don’t care how much money a movie made. The initial reaction slowly fades away and a new audience begins to discover the movie.
I love every second of this batshit crazy movie. It’s like an Iron Maiden album come to life. It tries to be unique and do something different and that’s all you can ask for. Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance deserves a second chance at success. Here’s to hoping it gets one.