If the filmmaking team Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor wrote out their thoughts on how contemporary pop has traduced fun, warped thrills and debased energy in the art form they love, it would be a great provocative piece of criticism—although few film publications would want such a principled view of the destructive entertainment that’s routinely sold to the public. That means this wildly sophisticated team remains obscure (and perplexing to some), but their new film Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance ought to be the movie news of the week.
Ostensibly a sequel, Spirit of Vengeance turns Marvel’s death-and-action Ghost Rider comic book franchise into more than just an entertainment: It’s a spot-on cultural assessment. Neveldine-Taylor use the story of badass biker John Blaze (Nicholas Cage) saving a child from the devil for a modern Redemption allegory.
Neveldine-Taylor redeem cinema unexpectedly by pushing its commercial extremes: outré violence and sarcasm (coin of the Tarantino/video game realm) where horror and comedy mix, as in their two terrific Crank movies. Spirit of Vengeance isn’t the perfect introduction to Neveldine-Taylor’s cynical brilliance but it claries their method: They are the only filmmakers interested in simultaneously mastering genre technique, pursuing an on-going cultural critique and laughing.
After the troubled Jonah Hex project (which Neveldine-Taylor wrote without directing), their gallows humor finds the basic Faust element in Ghost Rider. When John Blaze reneges on his deal with the devil, Neveldine-Taylor trace his madness to our sped-up, digital-age culture. Tarantino exploits vengeance but Neveldine-Taylor explore the ramifications of the “Lust to punish” in today’s berserk world—a criminals-and-monks allegory for how media mavens and private citizens act vengefully without humility or compassion.
Neveldine-Taylor’s moral clarity seems paradoxical given their hyperbolic, deliberately trashy-looking style, but there’s old-fashioned satisfaction to the way they connect modern nihilism to a classic theme. Concerned with the preservation of human values, they express them when angel Moreau (Idris Elba) enlists Blaze to protect Danny (Fergus Riordan) from the satanic clutches of Roarke (Ciaran Hinds). They work through contemporary decadence the same way medieval artists did. Like the Crank movies, Gamer and Jonah Hex, Spirit of Vengeance satirizes purgatory.
Most junk movies (The Terminator, Iron Man, Kick-Ass, Thor and others) cheat us out of moral reckoning; Neveldine-Taylor jokingly provoke our conscience by heightening action tropes. Narrative acceleration (sped-up camera moves, jump-cut editing) gets so technically striking that viewers are forced to question their comprehension where most movies simply request intermittent attention.
Cage’s manic performance epitomizes this challenge. It’s on the edge of corny yet desperate, evoking Conrad Veidt’s Gwynplaine in The Man Who Laughs. He’s a walking inferno whose machines—motorbike and an earth-carving crane—catch fire. (By contrast, Johnny Whitworth’s hipster Destroyer touches and decays an apple while a Twinkie stays preserved—a perfect Neveldine-Taylor cultural joke.) Blaze is always on fire, consumed of his own cynicism; a post-Judeo-Christian hero (he gets the only Communion scene in a mainstream film since Godfather Part III). In a remarkable montage Blaze morphs into his possessed visage, a Face/Skull exchange of humanity and death. This F/X recalls Gothic paintings that depicted debased human conditions alongside spiritual beliefs and Godard’s compacted modernism (in the road chase using reverse-negative night-for-day imagery that resembles the limbo of Alphaville). Neveldine-Taylor are cultured geeks.
It’s all hyped by a guitar-shredding music score that helps equate Neveldine-Taylor’s frenzied filmmaking to a gifted kid making up Heavy Metal chords in his garage—improvs on classic riffs, solos and melodies that actually critique the tired corporate-rock variety of metal. Much of Neveldine-Taylor’s fun comes from the feeling that their genre critiques are made-up as they go along, challenging the clichés that are built into decadent Hollywood formula. Neveldine-Taylor’s films are not only fresher than the current state of criticism, they’re inspired.
Follow Armond White on Twitter @3xchair.