With a Vengeance

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance roared into theaters this weekend, and I squeezed some time out to catch an early matinee. I’ve been a Ghost Rider fanboy since 1982, when Roger Stern shared the writing credits with J.M. DeMatteis. I read my older brother’s abandoned comic books under the covers with a flashlight, thrilling to the explosive action of a guy who rode a flaming motorcycle, and horrified at the tortures Johnny Blaze underwent in his quest for redemption. Those stories were equal parts morality play and schlock horror, and I loved every minute of it. Many years later, Chuck Dixon and Mark Texeira brought more adult sensibilities to the story, along with a new origin, purpose, and powers for the Ghost Rider. At the same time, Marvel reprinted the final issues of the 1973 run – the very issues that had hooked me on the character – and I came to appreciate the storytelling on an entirely different level. Although the Ghost Rider has appeared in a few cartoons, he’s never had a major motion picture, and I anticipated eagerly the release of the 2007 picture. Five years later, I’m still excited to see another theater release, and I’m hoping for a betterĀ  treatment of the character.

The movie reboots the franchise with a clean break from the previous release; even though Nicholas Cage reprises his role as Johnny Blaze, it’s a much different Blaze than the 2007 picture. Where the first picture was almost entirely an origin story, the new one follows Blaze on his travels across Europe, running from the demon inside himself. In the process, he stumbles across an unexpected opportunity to free himself of the curse of the Ghost Rider, and help prevent a young boy from falling into the clutches of the devil. The result is a movie that delivers only a sliver of the action possible in its concept, none of the pathos of Blaze’s damned soul, and an inexpressibly mediocre take on a superhero movie.

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Story (Pass/Fail): Fail

I expected better from Neveldine and Taylor, the team of directors behind Crank, Crank 2: High Voltage, and Gamer. I expected much better from story and screenwriter David Goyer, the pen behind realizing Dark City. This movie doesn’t know whether it wants to be a superhero slugfest, introverted horror story, or road trip buddy picture and the resultant mishmash of styles has the viewer moving from beat to beat without any sense of continuity or purpose. Plot hooks are left dangling without any attempt to resolve them, and when the origin of Blaze’s demon Zarathos is finally revealed in a glorious 30-second backstory, the viewer is far more interested in the outcome of that tale than in anything that takes place in the movie itself.

Characters (Pass/Fail): Fail

Nicholas Cage plays Blaze like a drug addict who hates and loves his fix with equal intensity. Johnny Whitworth steals the show as the street-scum Carrigan. Neither of these performances can save the movie from a cast of flat actors going through the motions of reciting their lines and hitting their beats without regard to motivation, emotion, or consistency. Even the Ghost Rider is bizarre and unpredictable in his behavior, alternately creepy and powerful, but never actually as terrifying as he should be.

Production Value (Pass/Fail): Pass

This movie looks good. The Rider and everything he touches turns to dirty, sooty fire and ash. Carrigan’s transformation into Blackout accompanies dynamic visuals and an increased sense of unreality. The fight sequences are sharp, exciting, and charged with adrenaline. The camera work is mostly acceptable, leaning a bit too heavily on close-ups and camera movement for my taste, but I expect the effect of that will be diluted when it hits video instead of the theater. The music really stands out, with a hard metal score driving the Rider’s mayhem during the most explosive parts of the film. Even when the action has calmed down, the metal edge remains to the music, reminding us that all is not, in fact, well.

Content (Pass/Fail): Fail

For a movie without gory bloodletting, gratuitous skin shots, or excessive shocking language (a few g-d-bombs grated on my sensibilities) this somehow still manages to treat the inherently emotional subjects of original sin, fall from grace, continuity of evil, power of religion, and the search for redemption in a way that strips them of anything worth thinking about and reduces them to trope and cliche instead of powerful, motivating emotional force. It’s like the filmmakers couldn’t distinguish between offensive and emotional subjects, and so elected to strip both of their visceral impact.

Shelf Life (Pass/Fail): Fail

I can’t think of a reason to watch this film again. The effects and action were okay, but not spectacular enough to merit slogging through the morass of twitchy acting and time-honored cliche that makes up the rest of the film. I’m hoping for some really good featurettes on the character when the blu-ray hits. Maybe that will persuade me to buy it.

In the mean time, I’m going to dig out my Ghost Rider comics and read them again. DeMatteis and Stern set up some truly horrific themes when the character was winding down out of their care. Dixon made it all fresh again when Danny Ketch transformed into the Spirit of Vengeance at the shedding of innocent blood. I just plan to stop before they decided that Danny Ketch and Johnny Blaze were long-lost brothers, their power came from a piece of amulet embedded in their bodies, and Blaze was turned into a cyborg.

I suppose nothing good lasts forever.

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