When I was on the set of “Kick-Ass,” I spent a fair amount of time in casual conversation with Nicolas Cage. Because I was there for a while, Cage relaxed enough around me to discuss a wide range of topics, and at one point, we were talking about “Ghost Rider” and his general affinity for the character. He had issues with the first film, but was pleased to have played Johnny Blaze, and he was determined to take another shot at it at some point.
He told me a story about an afternoon while he was on the press tour for the first film, and they were in Rome to promote it. He had the afternoon off and was walking around, looking at old churches, wearing his Johnny Blaze costume. He happened to walk into a church where there was a conference of cardinals underway, and they recognized him. They called him down to the front of the church and asked him to sit in the front with the main cardinals. As he was sitting there, listening to the conversations, dressed as Johnny Blaze, he got the idea that in the second film, Blaze should be employed by the Vatican as a special weapon against the forces of darkness.
I’m not sure how that idea led to the film that opened yesterday, “Ghost Rider: Spirit Of Vengeance,” but I am sure that Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor are a creative cancer, perhaps the most aggressively unpleasant mainstream filmmakers working. Their work seems to be devolving from film to film, and as much as I disliked “Gamer,” their last movie, it’s safe to say it would be hard for me to imagine hating another film this year on the same level as “Ghost Rider: Spirit Of Vengeance.” Visually repulsive, morally empty, and intellectually bankrupt, this is the film that people are thinking about when they moan about Comic-Con culture and fanboy cinema. This is devoid of invention or ideas, joyless filmmaking without any investment from the filmmakers. It actively scares me that these guys have fans, and that people are willing to defend their filmmaking, because what I see onscreen in their work is nothing less than the deadest of dead ends, the worst of modern action cinema taken to its logical conclusion.
Last year at Comic-Con, they showed a presentation reel about how Neveldine and Taylor shoot their films, with the emphasis being on how they operate the cameras on their films and use wire rigs and roller-skates and other gimmicks to capture footage. Seeing the finished film, none of that matters. There’s not a single coherent moment in the film, not a single well-rendered visual idea. I saw the film in 2D, and I’m glad I did because I would have walked out of a 3D screening of it. They never stop moving their camera, and there’s no reason for them to move it in the first place. They seem so completely unconcerned with the basic grammar of filmmaking that I honestly don’t think they even understand that film is about communicating ideas. They are the manifestation of the notion that “cool is all that matters,” but there’s nothing cool about this nonsensical grab bag of kinetic crap.
The film’s story is indifferently presented at best. There’s a kid, the Devil (Ciaran Hinds) wants to take over his body according to some prophecy, and Idris Elba likes wine. That’s about it. Christopher Lambert shows up as a monk, Violante Placido plays the boy’s mom, and Nicolas Cage does his best to inject energy into a script that couldn’t care any less about presenting anything of interest. The closest thing to a new idea in this movie is a scene where the Ghost Rider sits in a crane and it catches fire and he hits some bad guys with it. That’s their money shot. That’s their biggest set piece.
I am genuinely having trouble processing what I saw today. I went to an afternoon showing at the theater around the corner from my house, and I’d say the theater was about 1/3 full. I wonder if anyone took any pleasure from any aspect of the film. Brandon Trost is credited as the cinematographer on the film, and I’m curious what that means when so much effort is spent showing the directors shooting the film themselves. Much of the film is not even in focus. It’s shockingly ugly, with a color palette that looks like a mix of charcoal and piss. The action scenes are loud and busy, but without any recognizable goals or purpose. There’s not one consequential action beat in the movie. Every chase scene ends with a flipped car. Every fight scene involves something blowing up. Every Ghost Rider scene is identical, with bad effects work that would have been rejected by a TV show in 1991. The characters are so thin that they might as well be named “Mom” and “Boy” and “Bad Guy.” Johnny Whitworth draws perhaps the worst hand of the film, playing a character who is eventually transformed into Edgar Winter with the power to make things rot. It’s a ludicrous idea for a villain, and a terrible execution. The one-liners in this are painfully bad, and the “plot twists” are so feeble it’s hard to believe anyone greenlit the film.
In general, I’m not sure why anyone would continue to defend these guys or their movies. “Crank” is a five minute joke extended to feature length, and just because “Crank 2” is even less connected to reality, that doesn’t make it “good.” At this point, I dare Neveldine and Taylor to tell a story that works with characters that are interesting and well-defined and a visual style that doesn’t look like it was shot by an epileptic with cataract problems. I dare them to reach even a baseline competence as visual storytellers. They hide behind their “style,” using it to mask the fact that they have nothing to say and no real sense of vocabulary. Film, even pop cinema, is an art, and when I see it perverted this completely it offends me. I don’t believe that film is an either/or proposition in the sense that this film’s existence prevents some other good film from getting made, because that’s not how it works. But I do believe that when we encourage this kind of vapid garbage, we get more of it, and at this point, enough people have rewarded these guys enough times that this is what we get. If this is what superhero cinema looks like in 2012, then count me out. I need more than an excuse for t-shirts and toys. I find every aspect of this film to be a complete failure, a betrayal of the basic contract between filmmaker and audience. I don’t need every film to be the best film ever made, but I do need the filmmakers to at least attempt to tell a story or express an idea. The only decent thing about this movie is that the team who brings the actual Rider to life managed to allow Nic Cage to play the character even during his most outrageous appearance, and as a result, there is more personality expressed by the Ghost Rider this time.
But who cares? When the entire film is so rancid, so contemptuous of anything approaching competence, one little technical accomplishment doesn’t count for anything. “Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance” is perhaps the worst film to ever have been produced from a Marvel property. That includes “Elektra,” “Wolverine,” and the Dolph Lundren “Punisher.” This is an embarrassment, and it’s not even worth seeing in a “so bad it’s fun” way. It’s not fun. It’s depressing, and these guys should be punished for turning in a studio film this inept. I’m sure they’ll just keep failing upwards, though, and we’ll have plenty more shabby, stupid, venal movies from them in the future.
What a pity.
“Ghost Rider: Spirit Of Vengeance” is stinking up a theater near you right now.