Psychedelic Film Criticism for the Already Deranged

Friday, August 03, 2012

The Boy who Pissed Fire: GHOST RIDER: SPIRIT OF VENGEANCE (2011)

When I read all the crappy feedback I knew GHOST RIDER 2 was a movie for me --and I was right. The problem in the first film--too high on its own supply-- is solved by setting it in Europe where the highways have no speed limits and are free of cops. So when 'the Rider' speeds through to Italy and the deserts of Turkey we dig a new kind of hero: the American outlaw stereotype as the ugly tourist! This adds a thick glaze of laddish 'Luc Besson doing coke with Guy Ritchie and sketching the storyboards on bar napkins' kind of grope-for-broke Euro-fecundity, which is code, by the way, for a bunch of well-armed muscle-boy three-o-clock shadow-sportin' thugs led by a young guy in an expensive black suit (Johnny Whitworth), chasing after a European model in a red raincoat and heavy black eyeliner (Violante Placido).

And Nic Cage, sensing the change in the wind for this installment--nostrils flared to savor the asphalt and brimstone tang--decides to tap into some of that madness he conjured up in stretches of THE VAMPIRE'S KISS (1988) and all of BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS (2009). He gives it both barrels, and spits liquid gold like he melted down and drank his 1995 Oscar. (1)

Cage has had to deal with some very narrowly defined action hero roles lately, but for GR:SOV he's up against a real big impasse: how to personalize a flaming skull head--the CGI equivalent ceramic bong at an 8th Street head shop? How to bring some personality to this biker tattoo come to life they call 'the Rider'? Cage leaps that impasse like it's Snake River Canyon, by going back to the classics and studying the original masters of psychomorphing: Michael Keaton as BEETLEJUICE (1988) and Jim Carey in THE MASK (1994).  Cage's moves are so herky here I kept waiting for him to cock his head, shoot some flame out of his ears and shout, "Ssssssssssmokin'!"

Writer-director duo Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor also wrote and directed both CRANK films, GAMER, and wrote but didn't direct JONAH HEX, another schlock 'ghost hero' vengeance grabber I felt was underrated  (it should have been longer but got cut by squeamish studio heads--see my startling, raw review, Hex and Taxes), and redeemed by Josh Brolin in the lead, a man who never says 'phone it in' - and one can imagine that HEX would have rocked had Taylor / Neveldine (as they bill themselves) directed it, because SPIRIT OF VENGEANCE, for all its cliche and impassive emptiness, does rock. Not like a hurricane, mind you, but like a gaudy carnival ride playing "Rock Me Like a Hurricane" over and over as you're whipped around a rickety metal wheel. Sometimes that's enough, especially if you're on that wheel with Cage. He's the Stones to Johnny Depp's Beatles, in other words hammy and aggressive, truly crazy, whereas Depp's cautious, prone to muttering, demure. Imagine what Cage would have done in all those Depp roles for Burton? Cage as the Mad Hatter! Cage as Willy Wonka! Four stars.

In his craziness, Cage shows just how very much Depp holds back as a persona. Where Depp stands on the edge and sort of halfway falls in, then leans backwards and flails his arms, Cage dives in, head on fire, shouting "I'm a prickly pear!" As such he is the 21st century's first true drive-in actor, an icon who should be proud to stand next to Tiffany Bolling, Tura Satana, and Klaus Kinski. Imagine him in any major Depp role and the surrounding movie gets automatically better.

That's because Nic Cage refuses to phone it in or play it safe. He goes deep! There were several scenes in SPIRIT OF VENGEANCE where I was almost rolling on the floor in hysterics like I was the first time I saw FASTER PUSSYCAT, KILL! KILL! and never before or since.  The peak scene in the film being outside an underground boxing match, where Blaze--his eye sockets warping into skull pits and flames shooting out of his nose--threatens a shady promoter that the 'rider wants to come out,' over and over. It's a moment as thoroughly awesome as Cage's rant against the elderly woman in Herzog's BAD LIEUTENANT or against the maid in VAMPIRE'S KISS! Junk cinema has been needing scenes this crazy for decades, and you're not going to get them anywhere else except with crazy Cage. The film's sheer psycho-cycle balls out, hanging brain, pissing fire off the back of a pick-up truck as it speeds down the highway reckless giddy oil-stained freedom is all him, and his obliging directors of course. It's clear Taylor and Neveldine work very well with the right actor, like Statham in the CRANK films, tailoring the madness to fit their leading man, encouraging each other like bad influence friends into progressively more dangerous and foolhardy endeavors, to all our benefit.

Perhaps the problem with so many of the modern trash films made today is that they doesn't really have a 'place' of their own. They don't even have a pair of rails to go off of as their insurance won't allow it. So the filmmakers shoot for the moon in a bid to cast as wide a demo net as possible, and this plan always fails, because a good trash film doesn't shoot for the moon, it just shoots for the nearest plate glass window. It used to be if you wanted plate glass-busting raunchy thrills you had to go to the drive-in. VHS and cable were distant dreams, it all had to be remembered instead of recorded, and in the process became inextricably bound in memory to the greasy exhaust and rocking tires of the drive-in. And that's where GHOST RIDER belongs, yet the drive-ins are gone. As far as the theater, GHOST RIDER: SPIRIT OF VENGEANCE might please a row of teenagers who've snuck in some beers and aren't afraid to shout at the screen, but just thinking about seeing this in a dark mall multiplex in 3-D gives me a headache. And if I was a mom taking my sci fi kid (Ghost Rider was the first comic book I ever bought), or with a girl who wanted to see the rom-com across the hall, I would be extra glad its only 95 minutes long. But with low expectations--at home with your drugs of choice and lovers and friends and etc.--you can 'let the rider out' and appreciate the finer details, especially the care the CGI folks took in showing the shimmering heat waves from the rider's fire against the clear blue sky, or the black crud that gets all over Blaze's unholy bike after a night of burnin' large. And that's all you need, presuming your expectations are as low as they belong. This ain't THE WILD ONE, after all, this is THE WILD ANGELS. This ain't REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, this is CUBAN REBEL GIRLS!

That's the thing - because we have so many options our films are becoming more and more moment and audience-specific. Something huge like DARK KNIGHT RETURNS needs to have crossover appeal so we can bring moms and daughters and girlfriends to it and they can appreciate it even if there are kids texting in their peripheral vision --as a result it's got something for everyone but no one ends up satisfied. But a film like GHOST RIDER is made so your brother, his buddy Glen, and you have something to watch after the women have gone to bed and the real drinking has commenced, and it gives just enough of the illusion of being a real movie that all the asides and bizarre touches seem like they hinge on something rather than just the free floating junk that they are (2). But isn't all life, and the art that imitates it, like that? Don't we live for speed so we don't have to stop and look back all the bad impressions and small brush fires we leave in our wake as we tear across the tourist towns of Europe? By the time the locals realize what we did -- the worthless paintings we sold them and the daughters we knocked up -- we're already gone, sailing over the sea on a big burning bike-like bird and dreaming of bottles, burgers, crank, coffee, and the Bounce-softened sheets that are America to me.

America: it's not just a destination, it's the journey. Only when going 90 mph, without a helmet, on a Harley, that's on fire, do we finally feel arrived.

1. For Leaving Las Vegas 1995

2. the way the similar Drive Angry failed to do


  1. The Kids In The Hall did the fiery peeing in Death Comes To Town back in 2010. Mark McKinney as Death who has a deep hatred for another character pee burns a message on the character's lawn

  2. Glad Im not alone in loving this one, that scene with Cage about to burst into Ghost Rider mode is the cream of the crop of Crazy Cage Moments. Neveldine and Taylor did great here, its a b-movie and it knows it, so they just went with it and made a good B-Movie. Did you notice the similarities in plot with Drive Angry? Strange how he decided to make almost the exact same movie, back to back!