Flame re­tar­dant

Amaz­ingly, Ni­co­las Cage’s char-grilled head is not the most ab­surd thing about this bog-stan­dard comic-book fan­tasy, writes Don­ald Clarke

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Music -

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.

irish­times.com/cul­ture

What’s cook­ing? A CGI skele­ton in Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance

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