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, the rider of the freeways between brown sugar-crystal deserts and the oil refinery ports that love them. 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 forced to confront this wild bag of mannerisms and CGI fire effects they call Johnny Blaze.
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 and Satanic mugging: 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'" but then adding "Meth!" and giving an Illuminati two-finger salute.
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! If you're not grinning like a maniac thinking of it, you're the one who's crazy, man. Crazy sobesky.
With his brains in ever-hangin' mode, 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, even James Remar.
That's because Nic Cage refuses to phone it in or play it safe. He'd rather suck on full blast then phone it in from a vantage point of smug safety. 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 rarely since. The peak moment--a peak in the Cage oeuvre-- 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...' As thoroughly awesome as Cage's rant against the elderly woman in Herzog's BAD LIEUTENANT or against the cleaning lady in VAMPIRE'S KISS! Seeing Cage go this nuts is truly liberation: Junk cinema has been needing scenes this crazy for decades, and you're not going to get them from any other American actor. GHOST RIDER'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 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 an international audience as possible, and this plan always fails, because a good trash film doesn't shoot for the world, 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 myth, and associatively linked to greasy exhaust fumes, and rocking tires, echoing speaker boxes, and that's where VENGEANCE belongs. As far as the theater, it 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 as a kid). But with low expectations--at home with your drugs and buddies, moms and scouring girlfriends in bed long before--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 should be. This ain't THE WILD ONE, after all, this ain't THE WILD ANGELS. This ain't REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, this is a big buggy mess. What makes it great is that it doesn't try to be 'good' or even 'fun' - it just tries to kick everyone's ass.
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 the paintings we sold them are fakes and their daughters are knocked up but still unmarried, honey we're already gone, sailing over the Atlantic on a big silver bike-like bird, dreaming of bottles, burgers, crank, coffee, and the Bounce-softened sheets that are America to thee.
America: it's not just a destination, it's a journey. Only when going 90 mph... on a Harley... without a helmet... while on fire, have we even halfway 'arrived.'
1. For Leaving Las Vegas 1995
2. the way the similar Drive Angry failed to do