Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (2D) (US - BD RA/B)
Gabe keeps playing review catch-up with Neveldine/Taylor's Ghost Rider reboot...
Johnny Blaze (Nicolas Cage) continues his struggle with the curse of The Ghost Rider – the devil's bounty hunter and seer of sins. While hiding out in remote areas of Eastern Europe, Blaze is found and recruited by a hard-bitten, badass Frenchman named Moreau (Idris Elba) to find a mysterious boy named Danny (Fergus Riordan) and his mother, Nadya (Violante Placido), who are on the run from a mercenary (Johnny Whitworth) and his gang of thugs. Blaze is reluctant to embrace the power of the Ghost Rider, but it is the only way to protect the boy – and possibly rid himself of his curse forever.
The problem with Ghost Rider is that, like The Silver Surfer, he’s a striking image, but far from a fascinating character. Both characters look great airbrushed on a van or as a full back tattoo, but continuously fail to work as solo entities and generally do better when they appear as guest stars in more substantial characters’ stories. The people behind Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer recognized the Surfer’s shortcomings and made him part of an established universe. The people behind the original Ghost Rider were too excited by the advances in special effects that would allow them to put the Rider semi-convincingly to film and failed to notice that he was an boring character. Mark Steven Johnson’s film has its moments, but is largely formless and forgettable. The film’s producers recognized that a reboot was probably in order if the franchise was too survive further installments. Then they further recognized that the audience had already been prepped with an origin and didn’t want to waste our time by starting from scratch (unlike some other unnamed Sony-owned Marvel property).
Neveldine/Taylor, also known as Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, initially sounded like the perfect people to pseudo-reboot of a prospective Ghost Rider film series – they’re edgy, over-the-top visualists that can sell a high-concept action movie through pure energy. They’re essentially Johnson’s filmmaking opposite and had practically re-invented modern low-budget action with their first film, Crank, then proved themselves gonzo satirists with the generally reviled, but backhandedly brilliant Crank 2: High Voltage. Their third film as directors, Gamer, crept by on minor charms and was passable enough to keep me interested in the team’s future projects. If ever a popular comic book character earned the Neveldine/Taylor form over function treatment it was Ghost Rider and early footage from Comic-Con seemed to verify the combination was going to work. Unfortunately, the road to hell is paved with ideal artist/project combinations and dashed expectations.
Spirit of Vengeance does get one thing definitively right: the image of The Ghost Rider. The costume design, the bike design, the smoky fire and the blackened, loose-jawed skull design all look better and more cinematic than the slick and bland Ghost Rider seen in Johnson’s film. The special effects involved in creating the Rider also work much better than those seen in the first film, which cost nearly twice as much to make (though the lack of budget does rear its head in other ways throughout this film). But, outside the improvements in design and effects, disappointment is the word. Neveldine/Taylor’s oddball sense of humour and affectionate absurdity isn’t as tempered as one would expect from a major studio franchise release, but it also continuously fails to connect with the material. Spirit of Vengeance is plenty nihilistic and silly, but despite a relatively clever means of dulling the bloodshed (Ghost Rider turns people to ash and Black Out decays his victims to a mouldy substance), the PG-13 rating holds back the usual Crank-level vulgarity, which, it turns out, is a vital component to the formula. Every lame joke comes off as obnoxiously childish, rather than endearingly childish, and the long pauses between wacky visuals quickly devolve into insufferable bouts of boredom. The most surrealistic sequences are so striking that I’m beginning to suspect that the boys should take the relative box office failure of their last few films as a sign and resign themselves to ignoring narrative work altogether and start making Alejandro Jordorowsky-inspired art films.
The action scenes probably read well on paper and feature some definitively cool set pieces (it’d make a pretty good comic book), but are ultimately frustrating in their repetition and lack of logic. The only reason the story progresses is because The Rider keeps spending too much time standing around looking creepy and not enough time killing bad guys or rescuing the innocent. The bad guys aren’t much better at taking care of business and a whole lot of screen time is wasted on pre-supernatural thugs acquiring new weaponry that promptly fails to work. For the most part, the directors’ down and dirty style works – the jittery action isn’t so jittery that it strains the eyes, and I got the gist of the geography during most of the smash-up action sequences – but all this jumpy movement, crash-zooming and extreme close-upping must have looked like a sharp finger in the eye when shown in 3D. It’s no surprised to learn (via the behind the scenes documentary included on this disc) that the directors were generally frustrated by the limitations of the format and generally ignored the advice of the post-production 3D conversion techs.
For every cool image there is another reminder that Spirit of Vengeance is based around a really dumb screenplay that never makes sense. It’s not at all surprising that the basic story was written by king comic book adaptation hack David Goyer, and even less surprising that Goyer’s gobbly-gook needed to be rewritten before it was worthy of filming. It’s just unfortunate that none of the re-writers on this film were up to Guillermo del Toro or Chris Nolan standards (not that either director’s Goyer-based work was anywhere near perfect). The meat and potatoes of the story boils down to little more than characters chasing each other from set piece to set piece around Eastern Europe, Neveldine/Taylor have made a joke of not making any sense throughout their career, and there’s not a lot of plot to either of the Crank films, but this project requires something more story driven in place of the missing vulgarity. Not to mention the fact that Crank thrives on unpredictability. I can’t imagine that anyone didn’t know where Spirit of Vengeance was going at any given moment. And the super-special MacGuffin child trope can go away for a while now, right? It kind of feels like it’s run its course over the last decade.
Neveldine/Taylor are working with a less famous cast than Johnson, but they’ve still got some choice participants here, including Ciarán Hinds, Idris Elba (who has now appeared in two Marvel comic films, though not in the same cinematic universe), Christopher Lambert and Anthony Head. Sadly, no one involved can really work in the directors’ preferred rhythms without sounding ridiculous (in a bad way) and on the whole, only Nicolas Cage, Elba and villain Johnny Whitworth are really any fun to watch. Cage’s bizarre, I-know-I’m-in-a-bad-movie performance was one of too few enjoyable things in the original film, but here his tired, pseudo-drug-addled version of Johnny Blaze is kind of numbing, stands awkwardly against the occasional hyper-active interludes. His heavily CG-assisted Rider performance is pretty great, though, thanks in part to advances in technology that allow him to put personality into a character without a face (the first movie featured various stunt men standing in for Cage).
Neveldine/Taylor were among the early champions of the RED system and continue working with the now mainstream high definition digital format here. Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance was shot in 2D using Red One MX cameras (mostly) and looks absolutely fantastic on Blu-ray disc. This is also the first time the team has worked as a directors with the wider 2.35:1 aspect ratio and the framing never appears to detrimentally cut head or foot space. Despite any and all problems I may have with the film itself, I can’t find any reason to complain about the quality of this 1080p transfer. The focus and contrast levels, and the colour palette are all extremely eclectic throughout the film, giving the directors/cinematographers and cinematographer Brandon Trost a proper chance to exercise the format’s every ability. There are deep-dark scenes with harsh contrasts, pin-pointed highlights and severe texture detail, set alongside big, bright scenes with vibrant colours and smooth, glowing edges. There are monochromatic sequences, there are sequences that contrast warm and cold hues without ever blending them, and there are sequences that soften and mix the colours into a prismatic amalgamation. Every one of these options works without more than a vague haze of digital noise, edge enhancement or sharpening effects. The frame rate sometimes looks a little off, but that is largely in keeping with the directors’ previous films, so I assume it is a stylistic choice, not an error. The copy I was sent includes the 3D version of the film, but I am still unable to review 3D discs at this time.
Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance comes fitted with a strong DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack. Given the Neveldine/Taylor’s habit of audio/visual overload, I’m a little surprised by how quiet the film is during the non-action sequences – where centered dialogue and very basic ‘on site’ sound effects are softly set in the center channel -– but when it really counts things pick up and this track leaves almost nothing to be desired. The basic dialogue track is a little inconsistent, and reveals some sloppy ADR elements, but, outside of Anthony Head and Christopher Lambert’s mumbled words, nothing goes entirely unheard. The action sequences feature enough bombast and bass enhancement to give your system a proper workout. These also feature huge gaps in dynamic range, which helps to add real punch to the loudest explosions and impacts. The more interesting aural design elements surround the Rider himself, including some pretty abstract motorcycle noises that build from off screen, and a nice collection of monster-like screams that usually find their way from center to the outer channels. The sound is generally at its best where David Sardy’s rock and symphonic musical score is concerned, which is in keeping with Neveldine/Taylor’s other films. It’s not common that surround tracks feature quite so much directional and rear channel enhancement in their music and even less common that such enhancements don’t sound entirely awkward. The music is also mixed particularly well with the noisy action. Score elements are surprisingly defined, and stand apart from, rather than adding too the chaos.
The extras begin with another Neveldine/Taylor ‘expanded video commentary’, similar to the ones seen on their Crank 2 and Gamer Blu-ray releases. Here, the audio commentary is repetitively interrupted by the director team, who stand in front of a green screen and talk directly to their audience. Behind them, footage from the film (which is occasionally paused for further discussion, and both picture in picture and full frame behind the scenes footage runs. These behind-the-scenes bits include raw footage and brief cast and crew interviews. Not surprisingly the boys are most excited while discussing their wacky stunt work, which includes throwing themselves off of cliffs with cameras in hand. The lame jokes between factoids wear thin, but things keep moving thanks to plenty of behind-the-scenes info and histories of the various locations. The footage of Cage on set with Christmas lights around his head is a consistent source of hilarity. With all the pausing to chat this video commentary runs a bit longer than the film alone, about an hour and 43 minutes.
Next up is The Path to Vengeance: Making Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (90:00, HD), a six-part behind-the-scenes feature documentary. Things start with a look at the first film’s post-script and the inception of the reboot/sequel. The second part covers the pre-production process, including production design, storyboarding, location scouting, re-writing Goyer’s supposedly ‘amazing’, but R-rated and expensive script, table reading, casting, wardrobe, and the many ways that the production saved money, including the choice to shoot 2D and convert to 3D in post. The third and fourth parts covers the bulk of the filming process, including the idiosyncrasies of the various locations, shooting stunts, the terrible weather the crew endured, Cage playing dual roles, and make-up effects designs. The fifth part covers the post-production process, including digital effects work, improvements in CG since the first film, sound design (which included hiring metal singers as the hell voices), and music. The final part covers the editing process and release. The doc includes interviews with the directors, producers E. Ennett Walsh, Manu Gargi, Ashok Amritraj, Ari Arad and Avi Arad, actors Nicolas Cage, Violante Placido, Fergus Riordan, Idris Elba, Ciarán Hinds and Johnny Whitworth, VFX producer Jenny Fulle, VFX supervisor Eric Durst, production designer Kevin Phipps, director of photography Brandon Trost, stereographer Craig Mumma, assistant director Sean Guest, stunt coordinator Markos Rounthwaite, and make-up designer Mark Hamer. Generally speaking there isn’t a lot of overlap between the commentary and the documentary, which is a pleasant surprise.
The disc also includes six deleted/extended scenes (11:20, HD) and trailers for other Sony releases. The 3D disc features an additional featurette about the 3D process entitled Riding into Another Dimension (7:10, HD), which overlaps quite a bit with the documentary.
Neither Ghost Rider nor Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance are as terrible as everyone seems to think they are (it’s not as if the character really deserves all that much better than ‘okay’), but if I’m going to give Spirit of Vengeance the edge thanks to the stylistic antics of directors Neveldine/Taylor. Still, there are huge problems, and Neveldine/Taylor are slowly losing the good will they earned with the Crank films with mediocre product. But fans should be secure in knowing that this Blu-ray release looks and sounds good enough to work as a reference-level disc, and that the video commentary and feature-length documentary cover nearly every aspect of the filmmaking process. Not a great movie, but a very, very good release.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13
Release Date: 16th June 2012
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English, French and Spanish, DVS 2.0 English Descriptive Track, Dolby Digital 5.1 Catalan
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish
Extras: Directors' Expanded Video Commentary, The Path to Vengeance: Six-Part Documentary, Deleted Scenes, Trailers, Ultra-Violet Copy
Easter Egg: No
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Fergus Riordan, Ciarán Hinds, Violante Placido, Idris Elba, Christopher Lambert, Johnny Whitworth
Genre: Action, Comedy and Horror
Length: 95 minutes
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