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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: Ghost Rider

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (Two Stars)

U.S.: Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, 2012 


No critics’ screenings here on Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance — for reasons that become quickly apparent when you watch it. So I decided to fork over coin of the realm anyway and catch it at a multiplex. After all, I thought, how bad could it be? I mean really, seriously: How bad? With Nicolas Cage as the star, again,  this sequel to his 2007 action hit Ghost Rider, should at least boast a few amusing tantrums and memorable creep-outs. And the source material seemed vaguely promising: a Marvel comic, with Marvelmeister Stan Lee himself one of a large gang of producers and executive producers, all producing away. I hadn’t seen the first Ghost Rider, with Nic, in 2007, so I walked in without much predisposition, except for the fact that movies the studios won’t screen ahead of time are usually not worth screening — or seeing — or even talking about. But not always. I thought what the hell, live dangerously.

The lights dim. The movie starts. The entertainment supposedly commences. We begin presto agitato, with a very, very fast and rapidly cut action scene at an abbey somewhere in Eastern Europe. A rebel biker monk named Moreau (played by Idris Elba, who deserved better) tries to keep Satan’s illegitimate son, young Danny (played by young Feargus O’Brien, who deserves better) and his pretty, black jacketed mom Nadya (played by Violante Placido, of The American, who deserves better too) out of the smoking hands of the devil himself, a Mephistophelean chap called Roark (played by estimable Irishman Ciarán Hinds, who, of course, deserves much better).

Hinds has replaced the devil of the first movie, who was played by Peter Fonda (who vamoosed), and Lucifer’s main minion in this movie is Ray  Carrigan, played by Johnny Whitworth, who turns supernatural midway through. Whitworth also deserves better. Hell, they all deserve better, including the Devil.

Anyway, monks are bashed and hell is raised and a car-chopper chase ensues, with Moreau on his monk-cycle. For want of anything better to do, I began counting the length of the cuts in the first scene (one thousand, two thousand…). They were mostly a second or less. Pretty damn fast. Rule of Thumb: Most movies cannot survive too many action scenes composed of nothing but one second cuts, however ballsy or Wildbunchian it may make the editors feel.

Soon Cage shows up. Big entrance. In the last movie, or so I hear, this poor sucker Johnny Blaze sold his soul to the devil to save his father’s life, and he got cheated and turned into Ghost Rider, condemned to wander forever between the winds and the sequels. But Moreau, who rather mysteriously has green eyes, tells Johnny that he can have his soul back if he rescues Danny from Roark. (Does this flaming sap believe anything you tell him?)

Maybe that’s why Cage wanted to do this character again. He’s really doing two parts here: ex-stunt-motorcyclist Johnny Blaze, who’s our familiar, sneering, sad-eyed, tantrum-tossing Nic, and Ghost Rider, who is largely a special effect and has a head that turns into a skull that bursts into flames (but rarely ever singes his collar). This Ghost Rider visual effect also blows up bad guys, sucks out their spirits or essences and shoots and pisses streams of fire. (Hey, who needs a soul?) Then he turns back into Johnny Blaze and gets to throw bizarre Nic Cage fits.

I figure Cage has worked out a cushy deal where he gets to emote and ride the chopper a little, and the special effect flaming skull dude does all the heavy lifting and heavy-duty action. But no — maybe. Cage is listed for both parts and some sources say he’s playing them both — which I hope doesn’t mean that this dedicated actor, who was said to have pulled some teeth for his part in Birdy (Cage says they had to go anyway), has pulled a “Jackie Chan” here, and is now doing his own stunts, somersaulting off speeding trucks onto burning motorcycles.

After a while, it becomes obvious that this movie is a real stinkeroo — despite Cage, despite Elba,, despite Hinds, despite the effects guys who did Johnny’s flaming skull, despite Stan Lee, despite Violante Placido, despite everything. Nor is the film  helped much by pulling in more monks, chanting, and scheduling later appearances by Polish actor Jacek Koman as the villainous Terroski, and Christopher Lambert as the tattooed, sullen religious advisor Methodius (a part perhaps conceived for the late Marlon Brando) — all of whom deserve better, Brando included.

Directors  Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, a moviemaking team who sign themselves synergistically with the joint moniker Neveldine/Taylor, are so seemingly addicted to their one-second-shot-or-more cutting exercises — even in the dialogue scenes, they hardly ever seemed to stretch a shot beyond four seconds — that the movie becomes semi-chaotic and tends to give you a headache. (Or maybe I was just empathizing with Cage whenever his head ignited.)

That’s too bad, because Taylor/Neveldine, or Neveldine/Taylor or whoever they are, actually have an arresting, or at least interesting, visual style that’s heavy on all kinds of odd angles, including birds-eye peer-downs and shoe-level tip-ups. The script however, seems to have been thrown together by three writers who would probably prefer to remain anonymous, except at the bank, and it’s a total stinkeroo-guarantee — a series of chases and pyrotechnic gibberish and flame-outs and showdowns, interspersed every once in a while, with dopey or expository or would-be humorous conversations, encapsulated in those hectic two to four second bursts, or with shots of Johnny Blaze. a.k.a. Ghost Rider zooming around and periodically bursting into flame, like a relentless shish kebab.

I am happy to say though that this obnoxiously clichéd, pointless, nonsensical and headache-inducing movie — out of which I eventually staggered, dumbstruck — does teach a valuable life lesson. Namely: Never sell your soul to the devil, especially in Romania. I personally have always found this to be good advice, and I’d like to pass it along, with all due admiration and concern, to that great bizarre movie actor, one time collector of vintage chronometers, and champion fit-thrower Nicolas (Vampire’s Kiss) Cage — who deserves better.

GHOST RIDER (One and a Half Stars)

U.S.; Neveldine/Taylor (Mark Neveldine & Brian Taylor), 2012
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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon