Monday, February 27, 2012


 Nicolas Cage reprises his role as the incendiary Marvel Comics character Johnny Blaze, an Evel Knievel-type motorcycle stunt rider who sold his soul to the Devil, in "Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance." This impudent, 95-minute, PG-13 opus is a reboot of the franchise rather than a sequel. The original "Ghost Rider" (2007) was a standard issue supernatural hero origins epic. Alternately adventurous, amorous, and absurd, this lightweight, middle-of-the-road, action mash-up was as tame as it was tedious. When the Rider wasn't tangling with either Mephistopheles or his rebellious son Blackheart, director Mark Steven Johnson pitted the him against the local constabulary conducting a homicide investigation. The protagonist’s outlandish motorcycle stunts amounted to cheesy hokum. Further, "Ghost Rider" imitated at least two scenes from the infinitely superior "Terminator 2: Judgment Day": Blackheart's assault on a biker bar and the Rider's encounter with the cops. Nevertheless, fans wallowed in this conventional nonsense, and "Ghost Rider" coined a fortune. Peter Fonda made a momentary but memorable impression as a sartorially elegant Mephistopheles, but the Rider's face-off against Blackheart (Wes Bentley made-up like a 19th century minstrel singer) to rescue his girlfriend Roxanne Simpson yielded no surprises. "Crank" co-directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor along with “Blade” scenarist David S. Goyer have drastically altered the franchise. Gone is Johnny Blaze's girlfriend. Gone are Johnny’s two guilty pleasures: eating jelly beans and listening to the Carpenters. Gone is Johnny's playful paranoia about his supernatural alter-ego. "Ghost Rider" qualified as a Disney superhero movie without any grit. If the two movies were compared to motorcycles, “Ghost Rider” would be a quiet, graceful Honda Gold Wing and “Spirit of Vengeance” would be a noisy, skeletal Yamaha dirt bike. Moreover, the color of Ghost Rider’s skull depicts the tonal differences. In the original, the skull is white, but in the reboot black.

"Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance" (**1/2 out of ****) dispenses with Johnny's earlier ‘fear no evil’ credo. He dreads his lack of control over his combustible alter-ego. Indeed, he has fled in fear to Eastern Europe to lay low until he can come to grips with his condition. This doesn't discourage a wine-guzzling, motorcycle-riding, French monk, Moreau (Idris Elba of "Thor"), from tracking Johnny down and approaching him with a proposition. If Blaze will protect a helpless child from his malevolent father, Moreau assures him that his renegade order of monks will help him remove his curse. Moreau and his cassock-clad compatriots have Danny (Fergus Riordan of "Fragile") along with his attractive Gypsy mom, Nadya (Violante Placido of "The American"), hidden in their remote monastery. Basically, Danny is the spawn of the Devil. Moreau warns his father superior, Benedict (Anthony Head of “Scoop”), that Satan will stop at nothing to possess Danny. Basically, the Devil has taken the form of a human, Roarke (CiarĂ¡n Hinds of "Excalibur"), while he treads the Earth. Unfortunately, Satan’s power is waning because Roarke’s body is deteriorating. Satan needs Danny’s body for a ritual enacted at dawn before the Winter Solstice so he can rejuvenate his dominance. Interestingly, this child in jeopardy plot resembles a similar storyline in an earlier Cage movie “Drive Angry.”

Satan dispatches a thoroughly obnoxious hooligan, Ray Carrigan (leering Johnny Whitworth of "Limitless"), to get Nadya and Danny after they escape from the monastery. Meanwhile, Johnny discovers he has a psychic connection with Danny and sets off in hot pursuit. The Ghost Rider uses his deadly Penance Stare on some of Carrigan's men. When he isn’t looking, Carrigan blasts him with enough firepower to land an unconscious Johnny in a hospital. Predictably, not only does Johnny recover, but he also befriends Nadya, and the two elude the authorities. Eventually, Johnny and Nadya free Danny from Carrigan's clutches in a larger-than-life confrontation at a construction site. The Ghost Rider converts a gigantic crane into a blazing juggernaut to combat his enemies. Johnny kills Carrigan, but Satan refuses to let his lieutenant lay down on the job. Instead, Satan revives Carrigan and provides him with the diabolical power to rot anything he touches. The best joke shows Carrigan destroying everything for a snack but a Twinkie! Carrigan emerges with a mop of long white hair that makes him look like bluesman Johnny Winter. Indeed, Satan and Carrigan take Johnny Blaze to the mat before our hero receives help in the last quarter hour from the lad he is supposed to save.

Basically, "Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance" qualifies as a darker, more sarcastic saga. Unlike the original, the reboot emphasizes Johnny's contagious ability to incinerate everything he handles. At one point, Danny asks Johnny what would occur he had to pee as the Rider, and we are treated to glimpse of the Rider performing figure eights with his urine. As clever as this visual gag is, it doesn’t match the Twinkie joke. Everything about the "Ghost Rider" reboot has fringe written on it rather than mainstream. Unlike the original, every character experiences a radical change. Johnny Blaze suffers like the Hulk. Carrigan changes from an ordinary hood to a supernatural ruffian. Even the Devil admits the pact he struck with Johnny was his worst. Neveldine and Taylor with their penchant for making R-rated movies were probably not the ideal directors for this PG-13 outing. Aside from emphasizing anarchy, Neveldine and Taylor streamline the action, eliminating superfluous love interests and law enforcement intrusions. They ramp up the violence with their guerrilla filmmaking style that makes everything look harrowing. The special effects are staggering. You can feel the heat of the Ghost Rider. Cage gives a better performance with a greater expressive range since his character evolves rather than remains static. Idris Elba is charismatic, while Johnny Whitworth is audaciously villainous. Christopher Lambert makes little impression as a tattooed monk, but it’s great to see him again. The post-production 3-D effect rarely enhances "Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance" since nothing comes flying out at you during the fracas. Ultimately, this above-average reboot will aggravate anybody who wanted something more conventional along the lines of the original.