Amazingly, Nicolas Cage’s char-grilled head is not the most absurd thing about this bog-standard comic-book fantasy, writes Donald Clarke
WE HAVE, TOO often in recent months, drawn attention to the fact that Nicolas Cage, never the subtlest of actors, seems to have abandoned any lingering inclination towards restraint. Major land wars have been carried out with less fuss and noise than Nic brings to his performances.
Still, it’s worth pointing out that during the press screening for Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, critics were howling with laughter at the lunatic intonations Cage imposed on the most mundane snatches of dialogue.
This is, remember, a film concerning a motorcyclist whose head frequently bursts into flames. Monks conduct cyber-wars in remote outposts. Ciarán Hinds seems to be the devil. Yet none of this is anywhere near as absurd as Mr Cage’s tendency to order a cup of coffee in a voice that suggests somebody is poking him in the testicles with a sharpened tent peg. There is irony in the news that the titular Ghost Rider once sold his soul to the devil. What can this once-great actor have got in return? I hope it was worth it.
The producers of the Marvel adaptation have taken the reasonably sane decision to hire Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor as directors. The duo gained a class of fame (some would say notoriety) for making something dazzlingly unhinged of the Jason Statham vehicle Crank. But, restrained by the demands of the Marvel Universe, the cheeky collaborators never really assert themselves. There’s the odd bit of freaky animation. The camera is forever keeling over in a drunken slump. But the picture remains only marginally more eccentric than the average, industry-standard, mid-budget sequel.
What’s it all about? Here’s what we can disentangle from one laughter-drenched viewing. The conveniently named Johnny Blaze (it’s rather as if the author of Das Capital had been born “Karl Communist”) has retired to eastern Europe with a mind to escaping any more entanglements with satanic conspiracies. Johnny is, you might say, a sort of morally charged, leather-clad version of Bruce Banner. Whenever he is in the presence of evil, his head transforms into a burning skull, his motorcycle gear becomes coated with malign grease, and his entire vehicle spurts flames.
Here’s the thing. We all know that, in real life, Romania is no more or less decadent a location than any other European country. But Johnny exists in the world of occult fiction. If you were planning to shun evil you would, surely, try and avoid positioning yourself so close to Transylvania. This is like travelling to Vladivostok for a spot of sun.
Sure enough, the credits have barely rolled when an unexpectedly French Idris Elba turns up to alert Johnny to a brewing mass of Satanic activity. Ciarán Hinds (enjoying himself no end as Old Nick) intends to possess the body of a young boy. Guess whose head is soon on fire.
To be honest, the creaky Ghost Rider source material, first launched in 1972, would surely defeat the better efforts of more subtle directors and a less deranged leading man. It all seems so wearyingly old fashioned: teenage delinquents on motorbikes, creaky incarnations of Satan, a rock’n’roll take on dangerous cool. The King’s Speech seemed more happening. The Artist has more to say about current discontents.
For aging Marvel completists only. “YOU’RE WITNESSING the birth of a city”. Kitschy Eisenhower-era commercials talk of “a miracle sea in the desert” and “the new recreational capital of the world”. Bombay Beach, one of California’s most impoverished addresses, has indeed come to represent the American Dream, but not in the way those early realtors and planners intended.
There are shades of recent hypno-docs Sleep Furiously and Le Quattro Volte in Israeli-born Alma Har’el’s compelling documentary depiction of a faded utopia. Dereliction dictates a slower pace of life for Bombay Beach, a trailerpark ghost town where everything is hours away and the population is less than 300 oddballs. Children kick around abandoned beach houses and polluted watering holes. Hippies at the fag end of the trail roll joints. Adults nervously watch out for the sheriff: “We’re not doing anything wrong and our house is clean.”
They’re right to be vigilant. The Parrish family, we’re told, were taken in for munitions offences after 9/11. Their numerous kids were put into care and at least one of them, a lovely, high-spirited boy called Benjamin, still sports emotional bruises. Now back with his parents at the beach, Benjamin is shuttled between doctors, pharmacies and scripts for lithium and Ritalin. Mom looks duly baffled when a neurologist finds nothing wrong. But why have the doctors kept him on truckloads of Risperdal and Abilify? Why, indeed?
Up the road, an ancient philosopher and self-declared bum called Red travels around by dune buggy. The place is just too disparate to negotiate otherwise. Teenage football player Ceejay, lately arrived from South Central LA, has been dispatched to Bombay Beach to avoid the fate of a murdered cousin.
A soundtrack by Beirut and Bob Dylan provides a neat compliment as Har’el’s languid social rhythms evolve into mythologies and fantastic reveries. A mini-soap opera involving Ceejay and a bully-boy romantic rival escalates into a no-fooling dance routine. These careful contrivances between the film-maker and various subjects provide surreal happy endings and bring the entire community together.
It’s only real in the way that Badlands and George Washington are real. But the fiction is just too lovely to quibble about.
What’s cooking? A CGI skeleton in Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance