The mantra of the fervent but long-suffering Nicolas Cage fan is as follows: There are no bad Nicolas Cage performances, just bad Nicolas Cage movies. This is how we obsessed admirers come to the defence of the Oscar winning star of Vampire’s Kiss, The Wicker Man, and Trespass; even when the film is subpar, he brings his uniquely calibrated intensity and unrivaled level of commitment to every role. The talented thespian has plenty of detractors though, and thanks to his well-publicised financial woes, Cage’s recent, desperate choices have provided them with enough artillery for a dozen lifetimes of mocking. What a relief then to find Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance a legitimately fun time. It even features a meta moment in which he promises to work on his “decision making” skills. Noted.
Directing duo Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor have rescued the cursed Marvel creature from the clutches of Mark Steven Johnson, who was responsible for the deathly dull first Ghost Rider back in 2007 (deathly dull excluding Cage’s fine work in the lead, of course). Although Spirit of Vengeance never reaches the madcap heights of Neveldine/Taylor’s unhinged Crank, it’s an inventive, wonderfully weird, and surprisingly focused one-shot comic-book adventure.
At the picture’s open, daredevil Johnny Blaze (Cage) is still encumbered by the demon rider, who pops his flaming head up whenever evildoers are in close proximity. This has become such a troublesome, anti-social issue, Blaze has had no choice but to flee civilisation and hide in Eastern Europe (we’re sure the tax breaks a studio gets for filming there played no part in the selection of this setting). Living alone in the Bloc is the price one pays for making a deal with the devil (Ciarán Hinds) and allowing yourself to be possessed by a soul-claiming minion from the bowels of hell. French priest and fellow biker Moreau (Idris Elba) seeks out Johnny and promises to return his soul should he help him with one final mission: locate Beelzebub’s earthly spawn (Fergus Riordan) and prevent his ‘Antichrist’ programming from being activated. After some contemplation, Blaze uncages (geddit?) the Ghost Rider and allows it to take over his corporeal form. But crazy is a lot like toothpaste; it’s a lot easier to squeeze out of the tube than it is to cram back in.
Almost all of the jokes fall flat; mercifully, Cage’s knowingly bizarre and discordant line readings make for genuinely amusing viewing (some great ‘Cackling Cage’ moments, particularly as he tries to keep from morphing into his dementedly demonic alter ego). His reliability as a screen presence is like that of a loyal friend or warm blanket: always there for you no matter how bad things get. He’s both aware of the audience’s expectations and entirely dedicated to the character, and that is a balance no other actor working today (or perhaps ever) has fully grasped. Also, unlike so many of his recent endeavours, Cage is not the only delicious ingredient. Neveldine and Taylor – working from a screenplay by David S. Goyer, Scott Gimple, and Seth Hoffman – provide an urgency and immediacy to the immersive action scenes that feel novel and exclusive to their oeuvre. The pair’s lo-fi aesthetic meshes rather well with the CGI here; the Ghost Rider himself moves like a Rankin/Bass stop-motion creation (albeit, a particularly violent one), and that only adds to this delightfully nutty experience.
Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance is now showing in Australian cinemas.