Given their short but highly distinctive résumé (four features in five years) prior to making Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, it seems only natural that the reins of the burgeoning Marvel franchise should pass to directing wonder-duo Neveldine/Taylor. When Johnny Blaze becomes the Ghost Rider, his fire-consumed skull looks like to be the logical conclusion of Crank: High Voltage, which saw the unkillable Chev Chelios (Jason Statham) right on the cusp of exploding in flames of spontaneous combustion. That’s the Ghost Rider’s natural state, a coincidence that could not have been missed by anyone involved in either film.
When Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance was released in theaters, I only heard feedback from Neveldine/Taylor auteurists, who for the most part reported that the sequel to Mark Steven Johnson’s 2007 movie was distinctive in the usual Neveldine/Taylor fashion, but, in light of the decadent Crank diptych, was a bit of a compromise. That may be the case (there’s a PG-13 rating to be obeyed, after all), but if anything, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance illustrates how the team’s directing style counts for more than just explicit content. Without hookers having their enhanced breasts perforated by stray bullets, or its hero having marathon sex in front of hundreds of horseracing spectators, to name just two representative images from “le cinéma du Neveldine/Taylor,” we may be more apt to appreciate what else they bring to a project, in terms of tone, texture, camera placement, and overall, envelope-pushing excess. It certainly looks and feels like one of their films, with violently zany images and cinematic horseplay that rhymes with what they’ve done in the past. Some of their usual gags are reused—and in the case of “tough guys who sit quietly and enjoy easy-listening music,” reused twice.
Ghost Rider and Johnny Blaze are effectively made a part of the Neveldine/Taylor canon, an analogue to the straight and “cranked” sides of Chev Chelios’s antic persona. The Marvel antihero also essentializes the duo’s concerns: The Ghost Rider is the blackout drunk aspect of Johnny Blaze, unhinged from his host body’s morality, while the latter, played by a lovingly frantic Nicolas Cage, careens through the picture like an overwhelmed bystander. Ghost Rider is also the duo’s mischievous, wink-at-the-camera representative; they can doff their “agent(s) of chaos” aprons and pin it to an onscreen surrogate, turning much of the story into malicious, Freddy Kreuger-esque playtime. In terms of surrealist manhandling of a conventional redemption arc, it is, at times, The Mask revisited.
The result, regardless of whether or not fans feel there was any visionary backing-down on the part of the Crank auteurs, is one of the more questionable PG-13 ratings in recent memory. The film could have earned a stronger rating if only for its (bloodless) body count, and its pervasive tone of meanness. With a budget that just about equals all their previous films combined, the filmmakers also display a keen aptitude for reproducing various styles of comic-book panels. Only the most overt examples include scenes of violent spectacle that are rendered against a solid black backdrop, fringed with dreamy haze, or, in one frame, a figure’s tiny, black silhouette falling into an all-white screen. Only in the final moments, when it becomes apparent that neither Ghost Rider/Johnny Blaze nor Neveldine/Taylor will shitcan the world, “Snake” Plissken-style, and that it was all about the little tyke anyway, does its anarchic spirit crumple a little.
Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance was shot in 2D and post-converted to 3D; dosed with a subtlety that would seem out of fashion in a Crank sequel, the film is, nevertheless, a catalog of visual riches, making dynamic use of the widescreen rectangle. I found no bones to pick with Sony’s gorgeous 1080p transfer and lossless DTS-HD track of this recent theatrical release, which preserves Neveldine/Taylor’s glistening-against-the-darkness palette and stylized f/x filters.
Neveldine/Taylor clearly loved making Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, so that, even if their infectious, fanboy enthusiasm fails to convert skeptics to the charms of the film itself, the substantial supplements section on Sony’s Blu-ray should at least speak to their honorable intentions. Listen to the pair for about 10 seconds and it becomes apparent that they are Beavis & Butthead plus brains, and that, regardless of their patented bizarro aesthetic, they had only the utmost respect for the Marvel property, and treated it like a valuable gift, as well as a valuable opportunity to show off. That’s only part of the reason why the two beefy extras here (a deluxe video-audio commentary with the duo, with a regular audio commentary track and frequent picture-in-picture digressions, and a six-part documentary featurette) are so engrossing. Compensating for the lukewarm air spewed by several of the producers who appear, Neveldine/Taylor aren’t afraid to get technical in showing/explaining a lot of behind-the-camera business, and their lack of condescension does the heart good.
One of the best and most distinctive Marvel adaptations gets the deluxe treatment from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment—outstanding picture and sound, and robust supplements that will be engrossing for fans and skeptics alike.