24 Lies a Second: Skull Daze

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Skull Daze

Let the massed, insistent millions fall silent! Let the overwhelming demands of the public cease! Let the world finally breathe a sigh of relief and consider its good fortune as one of the human race's fondest desires is, at last, brought to fruition. Yes, they're made a sequel to Ghost Rider. (Sorry, should have said at the top: review may contain irony.)

Did anyone come out of the original film saying 'Wow, that was such a great experience, I can't wait for them to do another one'? Because I certainly didn't. I did get some mileage out of delivering my considered opinion of Mark Steven Johnson's film, which was basically – and don't bother to stop me if you've heard this one before – that it was the greatest 'Nicolas Cage plays a motorcycle stuntman who turns into a demonic burning skeleton biker vigilante' movie ever made. If nothing else, the release of another 'Nicolas Cage plays a motorcycle stuntman who turns into a demonic burning skeleton biker vigilante' movie makes that line a bit less funny, so I was kind of predisposed against Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance from the start. Hey ho.

Anyway, it sort of follows the same general backstory as the first movie although some of the details have been faffed about with. Nic Cage once again plays Johnny Blaze, a daredevil stuntman who long ago sold his soul to the Devil for reasons which seemed quite pressing at the time but aren't really dwelt on here. As a result of this deal, Blaze is cursed to be the host of the Ghost Rider, an infernal spirit unstoppably drawn to punish the guilty. As the movie opens he has relocated to an unspecified Osten-Europe, ostensibly to try and escape his predicament but much more likely because film production costs are rather lower over there.

Here he encounters Moreau (Idris Elba), a bike-riding, wine-guzzling warrior monk who has a proposition for him. The Devil (Ciaran Hinds) has spawned a child with gypsy woman Nadya (Violante Placido) and in but a few days will transfer his satanic essence into the lad, allowing him to unleash his full power in the Earthly realm. Or something. As the Devil's flunkies have already offed Nadya and the kid's existing protector (including Tony Head, sadly curtailing his screen time), they are currently on the run, and if Johnny and the Ghost Rider will keep them safe and prevent the end of the world as we know it, Moreau knows of a way to free him of the Rider's presence...

I know what you're wondering – but no, they couldn't find a role for Dame Judi Dench in this film. What they did find was a director's chair big enough to accommodate Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, the demented visionaries behind (amongst others) the almost indescribable Crank movies. Any film made by these guys is going to at least be interesting, and so I was by no means turning up to Spirit of Vengeance simply in order to pass a lonely evening.

And the film does show signs of the authentic Neveldine/Taylor signature style: frenetic camera movement (this was probably a mistake in a movie released in 3D, as I spent most of the running time with a vague feeling of incipient motion sickness), smash cuts, wild excess and a general sense that good taste is more an distant abstract concept than anything you might want to keep in mind while writing or directing. But, along with Cage as the star, this movie has retained Johnson as executive producer, along with Avi Arad as the producer and David S Goyer in the story department, all of whom have a much more mainstream, even pedestrian, pedigree. And this is, after all, a movie with a box office friendly certificate (12 and up in the UK, for instance).

As a result, one gets (as well as the incipient motion sickness) a definite sense of two wildly different sensibilities engaged in a bitter death struggle. There are fleeting moments of inspired Neveldine/Taylor lunacy (most notably, Ghost Rider widdling napalm, and Jerry Springer's appearance as Evil Incarnate) but most of the time this is really not much more than a very routine fantasy action movie with the occasional striking visual: and even then, the film is shot in a naturalistic, rather drab way which seems to drain some of the energy and life from proceedings.

That said, what's more notable here than ever is that for a blazing skeleton careering around on a burning motorcycle laying about him with a fiery chain, Ghost Rider is actually quite a boring character. My own memories of him start with an issue of Marvel Team-Up in which he beat up Spider-Man (rather easily) before the two of them joined forces to sort out a rather forgettable villain. In the middle of Marvel's fictional universe, set against much brighter and cheerier figures, Ghost Rider has a certain novelty value and distinctiveness, but in a standalone project like this he does come across as more than a bit ludicrous. Maybe they should've put him in The Avengers: that would have been interesting.

Nicolas Cage gives... er... his standard performance. The days when he won Oscars, or was even a serious contender, seem to be long gone. Is he descending into self-parody? It is quite difficult to tell, but the fact he gets so many projects into cinemas rather than descending into straight-to-DVD oblivion must tell us something. I'm not sure what it is. In any case, in this movie he is aided by the fact that so many of his fellow performers are genuinely lousy. Idris Elba is saddled with a verrah pekoolia ohksent, as if his character wasn't silly enough to begin with, while Ciaran Hinds – so good in The Woman in Black at the moment – appears to be doing an impersonation of Popeye the Sailor, which is an interesting approach to playing Satan. All of this is as nothing, however: despite shaving his head and having his face and scalp heavily tattooed, Christopher Lambert is instantly recognisable as soon as he opens his mouth, his uniquely personal duel with the English language having continued unabated despite it being over 25 years since Highlander.

So the direction is disappointingly blah, and the acting is rotten. As for the script, this kind of film doesn't need to be subtle, but I would still hope it might avoid contrivances of the kind which litter the story here. However, where Spirit of Vengeance really falls down is in the action sequences, which are fatally underpowered. They're either static or repetitive and – though this shouldn't really be a surprise – very reliant on CGI effects. The final chase has a certain novelty value, in that it lets the Rider go out in the sunlight for the first time, but that's really the best I can say about it.

My literary advisor came along to see Spirit of Vengeance with me (I think he's looking to branch out), and at the end declared he had preferred the first one. I'm not sure I agree, but that's only because the first one was so weak in other departments. This one shows signs of improvement, in some ways, but the restrictions placed on Neveldine/Taylor's natural inclinations cramp their style so much one wonders why they're directing at all. Nevertheless, I would still say this was the best 'Nicolas Cage plays a motorcycle stuntman who turns into a demonic burning skeleton biker vigilante' movie ever made – in 3D, anyway.

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