Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance
There is so much good to be done with Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, so much glee in its conceptual bones and in every ounce of its credentials, and it is altogether a crushing disappointment. Not an awful film, mind you, or at least not awful for the reasons we might expect, but it is most certainly not the film it could have been. To understand why, let us do our duty and note a thing or two about the film as it existed in the mind of a hopeful would-be fan of exploitation cinema, or as it existed before it was actually, you know, released.
Obviously, part of the conceptual appeal is simply the Ghost Rider name, painting sweet nothings of umlaut-encrusted, hell-blazing devil horn fairies in the minds of grungy teenagers all across the land. But getting excited for this particular Ghost Rider before release had more than wishful thinking to go on. We had the divine meeting, the one foretold in the prophecies! Well, truth be told, Werner Herzog and Nicolas Cage already made Bad Lieutenant, and what a melding that was! But the second most divine of all meetings was still in order. I suppose “Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, those two restless souls who directed the Crank movies” meeting the one and only Cage isn’t quite up to the same level of potential as Cage meeting the one and only Herzog. But if Cage needs anything, he needs a visionary to stoke the fires of hell in him, to give him a placebo that fills the place of whatever muse beckons forth his mind, and to push him over the deep end to the point where his lunacy becomes a force of nature, a pure fact, incapable of being adorned with adjectives of any kind, for they distract from the purity of Cage himself. If nothing else, Neveldine and Taylor were those cartoon visionaries, the minds behind the video-game-by-way-of-Looney-Tunes Crank films, and the perfect guiding force for a subject, and an actor, that was basically Bugs Bunny by way of Motorhead anyway. Our dreams had come true, and nothing less than the finest slice of action cinema this side of Un Chien Andalou was to be brought forth into the world.
But, oh yeah, these guys made Gamer, their entry into “respectable” action cinema. Respectability only made, for instance Luis Bunuel all the more deranged, mocking expectations to the very end and courting safety only to turn the middlebrows of the world on their ears with combative, even confrontational forms of surrealism that only grew more pleasantly perverse and delightfully immature with his age. Although Crank made Neveldine and Taylor the surrealists of action cinema, Gamer wasn’t exactly The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie as far as aging gracefully goes. It would seem the big(ish) money did nothing but sand off their edges and see them playing to the rafters. It saw them trying to grow up, and, as anyone with a sense could have told them, growing up wasn’t exactly the forte of a pair of directors who found brilliance in, for instance, depicting Jason Statham fight a guy with the concrete volcanism and paper-mache artifice of a Godzilla smack-down. The surrealists had grown safe, and Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, unfortunately, does not fully reverse the trend. It is just not immature enough, and not experimental enough, to make us forget the memories of their previous foray into “proper action cinema”.
Admittedly, it ain’t all that bad. Neveldine and Taylor seem to have rediscovered, one suspects accidentally, a touch of their ferret-loose-in-a-haunted-house spark, and they at least move the camera around with some abandon (even if the specifics of the movement often lacks intention or purpose). They’ve always been better ice cream makers than directors, and they are at their best when they are whipping about, or lingering on a demented little moment of disconcerting whimsy (such as when the Rider stops mid-fire-fight to sway back and forth – all sideshow carnival performer like – while staring at the men he is about to do harm). Cage, meanwhile, is a welcoming presence for his descent into the nether realms of clamorous, tenebrous disarray and mania. It isn’t quite to the level of hyper-active beastial dementia coaxed out of him by Werner Herzog, but it’ll do in a pinch.
The problem, then, is really extremely simple: the parties involved eventually made the mistake of thinking this costume-ball they had wandered into was an actual film, and, once this happened, there was no going back. What any sensibly minded soul would want from a Ghost Rider film starring Nicolas Cage is nothing more than a clothesline upon which to string increasingly fluent and energetic descents into pure lunacy. What no one wants is anything that might circle around the corpse of a “plot”, and that is exactly what Spirit of Vengeance makes the mistake of giving us.
It is nowhere near as bad as the colossal misfire of the previous film (card-carrying member of the middlebrow morose club, making the mistake of thinking that a movie about a flaming skeleton who rides a motorcycle should have the tone of a somnambulant prestige pic about, say, cancer or old age). But this sequel is still too morosely serious when all is said and done. For every pleasingly off-kilter animation-sequence of thirty seconds, or every surprisingly dynamic shot that lasts all of one second, there are a good few minutes of turgid exposition scenes about The Devil (Ciaran Hinds) who wishes to steal a child (Fergus Riordan), and the Ghost Rider (Cage, as you well know) who must help the boy’s mother (Violante Placido) and an avenging religious crusader (a cheeky Idris Elba) rescue that boy. That’s maybe one too many characters already, but things only get worse from there. There’s an existential crisis, a cornucopia of souls to save, lessons to be learned, and twists and turns nobody asked for in the first place. Added to this bulging cocktail we have some of the most painstaking mythology building to grace a film in years. All of this seriousness does just the best, tightest job in the world of killing any sense of fun the movie has when it hits its stride. Did Dan Brown gain control of the screenplay?
Still, and in all honesty, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance does at least have fun to kill, and for that, the team should be commended. It is nowhere near as spirited and zany as it might have been (ideal would be Judas Priest with Mike Patton of Faith No More doing gang vocals and Elton John on the keys, but we end up somewhere around, say, a Helloween cover band). For those of you who know and admire that particular vintage of metal, this film is right in your wheelhouse. But for the rest of us, we’re left wasting away for the real thing, indulging in the moderate pleasures while we wait. Genuine pleasures, admittedly, but merely moderate ones all the same.
Ahh, the neo-exploitation film. Drive Angry keeps pimply, immature company, indeed, but what variety of pimples are they? Most neo-exploitation films are bottom-of-the-barrel dirges through the smug, self-important regions of film land, concoctions of equal parts “terrible filmmaking” and “detached, obvious, snidely superiority about how it is okay that they are terribly made because they know that they are terribly made, and that makes them better than any of those other real exploitation films”. Such works are of little value, and worse still, they don’t even like the thing they aspire to be. Better, albeit much less frequent, are the Tarantino-inspired ilk that genuinely love the exploitation film, utilize the strengths of those films, and retort with an understanding of what is valuable about those films, and how to overcome their limits through commenting on those films as cinema. Rather than simply point out how they are better than actual exploitation films, they wish to explore cinema, and to explore their own limits as cinema, through the act of becoming an exploitation film. But, and here is the issue, the existence of the latter worthwhile films is responsible for the existence of the former smug ones, and in order to glimpse the glories of the latter, we have to trudge through a great many of the former.
The interesting thing about Drive Angry is that it is neither of these forms of neo-exploitation cinema. Instead, it is, shockingly, the real deal, an honest-to-god exploitation film without anything on its mind other than the simple act of being an exploitation film. The premise is elegant in its simplicity: John Milton (Nicolas Cage, and a weird joke of a character name) escapes from hell to rescue his infant granddaughter from a devil-worshiping religious cult (headed by the oily Jonah King, played with gusto by Billy Burke); along the way, he meets Piper (Amber Heard), who needs an adventure and has nothing left to loose, and he is chased by a mysterious and tersely funny man called “The Accountant” (William Fichtner). Director Patrick Lussier knows his way around a shot, and an edit, and his film is of refreshingly workmanlike craft. It has absolutely no idea what an exploitation film is conceptually, but it absolutely knows how it is an exploitation film through how it is filmed, constructed, and unleashed upon the world. It doesn’t wish to hold a dialogue with the exploitation genre at at a thematic level, but simply to be admitted to the party, to be one of the crew. That ground-level skill keeps it from ever growing weary or coming down with a case of the self-importances, from ever losing itself to endless thematic rambling or experimentation.
What we get instead is a decent, coarser than usual Cage performance with a steely determination and a single-minded charisma, very much in the spirit of the film it props up. Lussier doesn’t gussy up money shots or fixate on Cage with a knowing self-reflexive quality; instead, he works to the material, rather than trying to work “on” the material to divulge its secrets or transform it into something it isn’t. At some level, this is refreshingly humble; things move, and move freely, and everything is unpacked with expediency and in the fewest number of scenes we might want for a film of this nature. There are no unexpected sub-plots, few dalliances with theme or character. Storytelling is in the eye of the beholder, and in this case, the beholder defines story through action rather than discussion, a gritty shift that works from the stones up and never tries to polish over the movie’s simplicity with the unnecessary complication of script-world.
Still, this take on the material is necessarily self-limiting; all Drive Angry aspires to is simple competence, and that is precisely what it achieves. The confrontational editing and queasy danger of a Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the gut-level grotesque art of a Deliverance, or the Gothically garish color-salad of any number of Italian giallo films – all lie entirely out of Lussier’s eyes. As do the formal genius and meta-textual complication inherent to, for instance, a Kill Bill, to give one example of a modern neo-exploitation flick that transcends the genre by re-conceptualizing the genre. Lussier aspires, essentially, to create a middle-of-the-road exploitation film, and he ends up discovering the strengths and the weaknesses of the genre in doing so. On one hand, he understands that exploitation films never tried all that hard, even when they were at their best; the masterworks among them were more happy accidents than genuine works of intent and precision. Yet that was their off-hand brilliance. Rather than aspire to much, they let the happy accidents fly, sacrificing care and composition for a free-wheeling outlaw elegance that went adrift wherever the day took it, and ended up discovering sheer brilliance once or twice in the process.
Like many of those everyday exploitation films, Drive Angry is a decent film all its own, and it does stumble upon greatness once or twice; a high-flying sex scene filmed with blunt force trauma, and a stupendous conclusion with a few bits of unsuspecting wit both land terrific blows. To counter-balance this, some of the moments don’t do much more than, well, spin their wheels, and Angry makes a crucial misstep when it misunderstands the lean, mean efficiency of its progenitors and tries to be “proper movie” length. At, say, half an hour shorter, Angry could have been a thoroughly successful trifle. As it is, like with so many actual exploitation films from the mid ’70s, it ain’t bad. And in this case, I suppose, “it ain’t bad”, a phrase of taciturn body and heft, does the genre proud