Posts Tagged ‘Nicolas Cage’

Every once in a while a film comes along which you can tell that the usual channels of publicity and distribution are struggling to cope with – it’s a bit left-field, in other words, possibly doing something weird with genres, and it’s not at all clear who the actual target audience is. One pretty reliable sign of this is that the trailer for it starts showing up in all sorts of odd places, as the result of a ‘enough mud sticks’ advertising strategy.

The current case in point for this sort of thing is Tom Gormican’s The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent. The title itself is perhaps a bit indicative as it sounds like it might be a reference to something else, but it’s not clear exactly what – The Unbearable Lightness of Being? Incredibly Loud and Extremely Close? Something else entirely?

Things start off conventionally enough, as a young woman is kidnapped at gunpoint. The film pays an unusual level of attention to the film she’s watching at the time, however (it is the rather good 1997 action movie Con Air), particularly its star, Nicolas Cage. However, we are soon off into the strange netherworld where The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent takes place.

We find ourselves at a meeting between film director David Gordon Green (David Gordon Green) and actor and movie star Nick Cage (Nicolas Cage). Cage is, it seems, an insecure, self-obsessed, and almost pathologically needy egomaniac, who insists on performing selections from Green’s latest script in the restaurant where they are having lunch. (Nick Cage is haunted by the spectral figure of his own uninhibited younger self; the actor credited in this role is ‘Nicolas Kim Coppola’.) Barely credibly, he does not get the part, which has an unfortunate influence on Cage’s contribution to his teenage daughter’s birthday party. His latest ex-wife (Sharon Horgan) throws him out as a result, sending him into a bit of a slump. (I feel the need to make it clear that Nicolas Cage and Sharon Horgan have never actually been married in what is generally agreed to be real life.)

Salvation, financially at least, comes when Cage is invited to Mallorca for the birthday party of an immensely rich super-fan, Javi (Pedro Pascal) – basically a paid personal appearance. It doesn’t do much for his mood, however, and Javi is appalled to discover that Cage is considering giving up acting – especially as he hasn’t even read the screenplay Javi has written for him yet.

But Nick Cage finds he has bigger problems, when he is picked up off the street by the CIA. Lead agent Tiffany Haddish reveals that Javi isn’t just an innocuous multi-millionaire, but the head of an international criminal cartel which has recently kidnapped the daughter of an influential politician. The CIA needs someone on the inside of Javi’s compound to locate and free the missing girl – could this be the role that Cage has been waiting for?

Well. Deciding whether this film is for you or not is a fairly straightforward question, and that question is ‘Do you want to spend one-hundred-and-seven minutes watching Nicolas Cage send himself up?’ Clearly someone believes there is a large enough audience that does, although this same someone may also have spent too much time on the internet and listening to the dozens of podcasts which concern themselves with the actor and his career. It is quite hard to imagine this film being made with any other actor in the lead role, mainly because Cage has become such an outlandish and mockable figure over the few years or so – stories abound about his ‘nouveau shamanic’ acting method, while his career trajectory over the last few decades (from Oscar-winning Hollywood A-lister to a string of DTV movies with titles like Jiu Jitsu and Kill Chain) would also indicate a career experiencing a degree of crisis. (I should perhaps mention that a Cage renaissance may well be in progress: Cage’s most recent movies have received favourable reviews and – perhaps more importantly – played in theatres.)

Whatever else this film has going for it, it is built around an immensely game and extremely funny performance by Cage himself, although of course it’s hard to be sure just how much of a stretch it is for Nicolas Cage to play Nick Cage. (Fictional-Cage’s personal history is slightly different from real-Cage’s.) It’s probably also worth mentioning that this is an essentially generous film, with no sign of any desire to really mock or deride its star (it’s doubtful whether Cage himself would have been dumb enough to sign up for such a role.

Beyond that, it’s a little unclear exactly what the idea behind this film is, beyond perhaps just being the Nicolas-Cage-iest movie ever made. There’s something quite meta and undeniably clever about the way the film manages to combine elements of the sort of semi-experimental film Cage was occasionally appearing in twenty years ago – he played a fictionalised version of Charlie Kaufman, not to mention Kaufman’s entirely fictional twin, in Adaptation – with the kind of action-movie nonsense which has bulked out his career since parting company with the mainstream last decade. But the emphasis is always on knockabout, broad comedy and Cage hamming it up; there’s a suggestion of something cleverer and more subtle – Nick Cage and Javi start collaborating on a screenplay, which as it develops takes on a suspicious resemblance to the plot of The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent – but this extra layer of self-referentiality is not as central to the movie as it would be if this really was a Kaufman script.

Nevertheless, it’s all ridiculous enough to be consistently entertaining, and Cage is well supported by Pascal and Horgan (who is as majestic as ever). The Javi role is a tricky one, as it calls for someone who can work opposite Cage without being completely overshadowed, but who still isn’t what you’d call an actual star in the same way he is. Pascal is a shrewd choice for this, as he’s currently experiencing a bit of a career moment, but also best known for a role where he has a bucket on his head most of the time. He is clearly a smart enough actor to figure out that he’s here to support Cage rather than actually co-star in the movie, but manages to do so in a way which should earn him some credit.

In some ways a knockabout, acutely self-referential comedy is the last film you would expect to find Nicolas Cage appearing in – but then this actor’s cult has largely been born of his willingness to make unusual choices. It would be nice to think that such a distinctive and charismatic performer has another act left in his career that will see him return from the DTV wilderness and do some genuinely interesting work again. It’s quite hard to tell whether The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is a step on that journey or just another nail in the coffin of the whole idea of Nicolas Cage as a serious actor, but – always assuming you enjoy watching Cage – it’s a lot of fun while it lasts.

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…anyway, while the distaff members of the family and our patriarch were off enjoying Mary Poppins Returns, in the screen next door Young Nephew, his dad, and your regular correspondent were settling down in front of perhaps the most-directed film of the year, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, from Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsay and Rodney Rothman.

This has been an exceptional year at the movies even by Marvel’s standards, and it feels entirely appropriate that it should end with a movie showcasing the company’s most iconic and popular character – all the more so, given that the year has also seen the passing of both Steve Ditko and Stan Lee, the creators not just of Spider-Man but also of much of the wider Marvel world, the sheer extent of which is perhaps the raison d’etre of the new film.

It opens conventionally enough, with a brisk recap of the career of Spider-Man, aka Peter Parker (Chris Pine), super-heroic protector of New York City. But then things switch to the perspective of Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), who is basically just an ordinary kid struggling with fairly typical problems: mainly that he doesn’t get on with his dad (Brian Tyree Henry), who is insisting that he starts a new school, curtails his hobby of making graffiti, and spends less time with his beloved but slightly shady uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali). Miles is out with his uncle one night doing something mildly illegal when he is bitten by a rather peculiar spider, and finds his life becoming even more complicated and stressful.

While coming to terms with his new-found wall-adhering powers, Miles finds himself caught up in a battle between Spider-Man and the forces of the Kingpin (Liev Schreiber), who has constructed an ominously big and complicated gadget with the power to blow holes in the fabric of the universe. Spider-Man charges Miles with helping him to destroy the Kingpin’s machine before – and this is probably quite a shocking moment if you haven’t read the publicity for the movie – he is killed in action battling the supervillain and his henchmen.

The city mourns, naturally – and so does Miles, of course, not least because he’s accidentally broken the gadget Spider-Man gave him to save the day. And then things take another left-field turn, with the appearance of another Spider-Man (Jake Johnson) at the grave of the one Miles originally encountered. It turns out that this new Peter Parker is a slightly gone-to-seed middle-aged Spider-Man from a parallel universe, who has been dragged here by the Kingpin’s machine.

The older Spider-Man basically just wants to leave, before being out of his home universe causes his cells to disintegrate, and initially turns a deaf ear to Miles’ plea that he train him or help in the destruction of the machine before even more damage is done to the fabric of the cosmos. But soon enough that old heroic spirit is rekindled and the duo set out to thwart the villain and save the day. But it seems that the damage to the multiverse is more extensive than anyone has realised, with a bevy of other Spider-People also in the mix…

Now, I like to think of myself as a fairly open-minded sort of person, not carrying around too much in the way of prejudice or bias – but I have to say that while it would take hospitalisation or worse to make me miss a live-action Marvel adaptation, I suspect there are a large number of parallel universes where I didn’t see Into the Spider-Verse on the big screen, simply because it’s an animated film. I suppose I can take some comfort from the fact that I’m not alone in this, because this movie is doing appreciably less business than the live-action Aquaman movie, despite being at least as good.

Then again, I say this as a fairly dedicated follower of all things comic-booky, which really puts me into the target audience bracket for this film. I’m pretty sure this is not the greatest Spider-Man movie ever made – that title is still surely held by Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2, and it will take something very special indeed to dislodge it – but in one very specific way at least, it certainly challenges for the title of greatest comic-book movie.

Up until fairly recently, most comic-book films were rather conservative beasts, largely determined not to appear silly or childish and keep the mainstream audience on board. The stories inevitably lost some of their colour, energy, and inventiveness in translation because of this, and it’s only in the more recent of the Marvel Studios films that the film-makers have become confident enough to let some of the sheer exuberant goofiness and innovation of the comics creep back in. Into the Spider-Verse isn’t a Marvel Studios film, but in the same way it isn’t afraid to trust the audience’s ability to get its head around some new ideas – most obviously, that the whole movie is set in an alternative continuity (or parallel universe, whichever you prefer). This allows the introduction of not just the Miles Morales Spider-Man (a comics presence, initially in Marvel’s Ultimate imprint, since 2011), but also a striking new version of Dr Octopus (voiced by Kathryn Hahn).

At the centre of the film is an origin story for the Miles Morales version of Spidey, which is handled with immaculate deftness and storytelling skill. But going on around it, and really making the film sing, is a very different kind of story, basically just celebrating the boundless imaginative palette of comic-book storytelling in general, and super-hero stories in particular. Miles Morales and the initial pair of Peter Parkers are eventually joined by a parallel-universe Spider-Woman who turns out to be Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld), and also a manga-influenced version of the character who’s a teenage Japanese girl from the future, not to mention the anthropomorphic pig Spider-Ham (secret identity Peter Porker). Perhaps most joyously entertaining of all is the appearance of a hard-boiled black-and-white version of Spider-Man from a pulp-inspired universe, who is voiced by Nicolas Cage in his own inimitable style.

The film’s defining visual conceit is to animate each of these extra-dimensional visitors in a different style, even when they’re all in the same scene – Spider-Ham always looks like a Looney Toons character, the Japanese character is presented in an anime style, and the Cage Spider-Man comes from a noir universe where the only colours are black and white (there’s a lovely running gag about him trying to make sense of a Rubik’s cube). The result is a dazzling visual treat, before we even reach the bravura climax where the different dimensions collide with and collapse into one another.

The script manages to do full justice to the potential of the concept, and – unsurprisingly, because this is a project in which Phil Lord and Christopher Miller have had a hand – is also immensely clever and funny. I was still a bit unsure about whether my decision to come and see this film had been the right one as it actually started in front of me, but one of the very first things that happens is a gleeful gag at the expense of Raimi’s somewhat less-than-wholly-beloved Spider-Man 3, which completely disarmed and delighted me.

Into the Spider-Verse is filled with good things and inspired bits of invention; the moment at which Lee and Ditko are given due credit is especially moving, of course. Despite its relatively modest box-office take so far, apparently the film has done well enough for a slate of spin-offs and sequels to already be in development. We have been here before, of course, with Sony’s arguably over-ambitious plans to diversify its Spider-Man series following The Amazing Spider-Man 2. In the end that just led to Spider-Man being leased back to Marvel Studios on a sort of time-share basis, and also the distinctly so-so Venom movie (which doesn’t explicitly mention its links to the parent franchise). Hopefully this time things will be different, for Into the Spider-Verse shows that there is potential for a really interesting series of films just focused on Spider-Man himself.  This is the best non-MCU Marvel movie in ages.

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It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.” – C.S. Lewis

You know, normally when I think about a film, one of the issues which can come up is that of its target audience – which slice of the population are the producers hoping to get to go and see it? This is quite a big deal; the wider the appeal of a project, the larger the budget you’re likely to be able to swing to make it. It’s usually all very straightforward, of course, and if I’m watching a film for which I am not really the target demographic then I make allowances for the fact.

I don’t really think I’m the target audience for Left Behind, released in 2014. But in this case there seems to be a little, if not confusion, then certainly obfuscation – the movie stars Nicolas Cage, who is, or was, a proper mainstream movie star, these days most likely to be found in somewhat eccentric genre movies, and is directed by Vic Armstrong, probably most famous as head of stunts on all manner of famous movies and Harrison Ford’s preferred stunt double. All my instincts and experience instantly suggested that Left Behind would be a slightly dodgy action thriller. But no…


The film concerns the travails and, dare I say it, tribulations of the Steele family, a typical all-American family. Head of the bunch is Rayford Steele (…really?), played by Cage, a hard-working airline pilot. He is married to Irene (Lea Thompson), and they have a couple of kids, primarily Chloe (Cassi Thomson). All used to be well with the Steeles, but there has been trouble ever since Irene underwent a religious conversion and became a born-again Christian. Ray and Chloe are finding this difficult to cope with, to the point where Chloe avoids talking to her mother and Ray is contemplating giving new meaning to the word layover by shtupping one of the cabin crew (Nicki Whelan) at the end of an upcoming flight to London.

Well, the fateful flight takes off, with Ray at the controls, still not sure which way he’ll jump (so to speak) now that Chloe has discovered his possibly adulterous plans. Also on board is investigative journalist Buck Williams (Chad Michael Murray), who met Chloe at the airport and has a bit of a thing for her, and various other movie-flight passengers. So, is it in fact the case that Left Behind is going to be a disaster movie?

Um – probably not in the generally accepted sense, no. All is going well when, suddenly, a bunch of the passengers vanish into thin air in the wink of an eye, causing alarm and panic amongst those – wait for it – left behind. The same thing has happened on the ground all over the world, and amongst those who have vanished are Irene and Ray Junior! Low-budget chaos breaks out as Chloe tries to battle her way home and work out what’s going on!

Of course, what’s going on is that Left Behind is a faith-based Christian film which has somehow managed to land the services of a couple of actors you may have heard of, in addition to the usual Australian soap opera alumni, and what’s going on in the story is that the Rapture has occurred. Fundamentalist Christian eschatology suggests that this is the moment at which all the faithful and innocent will be whisked off to Heaven, heralding the start of the reign of the Antichrist on Earth, leading up to the final battle of Armageddon and the end of the world as we know it.

Sounds like quite exciting stuff, doesn’t it? Unfortunately it seems that all the stuff with the dominance of evil and the battle for the fate of the world was held back for the various sequels (there are apparently sixteen novels in the series this film is based on), and the Antichrist himself isn’t in the movie either. Instead, what the film is about is…

You know, I have to admit I’m really not sure what Left Behind is actually about, but then I’m often not sure about what the point of a lot of these Christian movies is. These films are routinely eviscerated by mainstream secular critics but then go on to do pretty good business with audiences in America, and occasionally elsewhere too (there’s one front on the culture wars encapsulated in a single sentence). Now, I saw Risen a couple of years ago and thought most of it was reasonably engaging, until the last twenty minutes or so; I also saw the remake of Ben-Hur, which had clearly been retooled with an eye to the faith-based audience, but that was a slightly more confused project.

My issue with this kind of film is that they are essentially preaching to the choir – the nature of this film is such that the people most likely to see it are ones who already agree with the message it is trying to pass on. Left Behind is basically saying that it’s better to be a true-believing Christian than not, a sentiment its target audience of true-believing Christians is unlikely to take exception to. Even if the producers of these films are hoping to reach out beyond the faith-based demographic, the (no pun intended) fundamental problem is that the films themselves are simply not very good (and frequently excruciatingly bad).

I don’t say this to criticise anyone’s religious beliefs, because, after all, who knows, but because faith-based films, for a secular audience at least, are invariably scuppered by their didacticism and the fact that strong and satisfying storytelling is replaced by the sending of a message. Not that this means the people responsible are ever likely to stop making them, of course: these films are not made for profit, or to express some kind of artistic sensibility, but out of an implacable sense of moral obligation. Left Behind at least tries to go easy on its conversion narrative elements in favour of a cod disaster-movie narrative about Nic Cage not being able to land his plane in time due to all the airports being full. But it’s still the case that this is a notably slow and talky film – before the plane even takes off, there are numerous lengthy scenes in which various characters discuss their relationships and beliefs while gentle piano music plays in the background. The sensation is rather like being buried alive under tofu, I would imagine. Once the Rapture itself kicks off, you can see that Armstrong tries to pep things up a bit with suddenly-driverless cars crashing into things, and so on, but the low budget means that the action is surprisingly unimpressive, given Armstrong’s pedigree in this department.

Christians tend to be a forgiving bunch (it goes with the territory, after all) and no doubt anyone who might think Left Behind is not so much a piece of entertainment as a vision of What Is To Come will be happy to overlook its numerous shortcomings (I haven’t even touched on the underwhelming performances or pondered the question of what the hell an actor like Nicolas Cage is doing in a film like this one in the first place). But that’s the issue – it never really feels like a piece of entertainment. If you’re not prepared to lend an ear to its core message – Being a Christian is a Good Thing, and If You’re Not a Christian Already, You Should Be – there’s virtually nothing here for you. Not so much a movie, more a sort of tract, and a peculiarly unattractive tract.


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Well, the continuation of global civilisation and weather permitting, I’m trundling off to watch Kick-Ass 2 at some point in the next few days and this seems as logical a time as any to share my thoughts about the original 2010 film, directed by Matthew Vaughn. I have been promising a review for a couple of years now, but as it took me quite a long time to catch up with the actual movie this delay is not entirely inappropriate.


I believe I saw the first trailer for the film, which ran before Avatar in 2009, and thought something like ‘That looks a bit different,’ but when it actually came out I was in Sri Lanka and quite probably several thousand miles from a decent English-language cinema. I do recall turning up a copy of the Daily Mail on the flight home in which the resident critic complained about being ‘cyber-bullied’ after describing it as ‘a crime against cinema’ and morally inexcusable.

Normally I would give a very favourable hearing to anything with the ability to get the Daily Mail so upset, but by the time I was back in the UK the film’s theatrical run was coming to an end and I basically had a tough call to make: see Kick-Ass, or Iron Man 2. Now in retrospect, one of these films is much more interesting (and arguably more accomplished) than the other, but I was still smarting after not seeing the original Iron Man in English (I was in Italy when it came out – a pattern develops) and made a bad call.

Eventually I got it on DVD, and when I sat down and watched it I found it to be… well, it’s a very well-made film, but also a rather strange and not entirely unproblematic one. Permit me to explain.

Aaron Taylor-Johnson (as I believe we are now obliged to refer to him) plays Dave Lizewski, a nondescript New York teenager who – for no particular reason other than a vague sense of moral outrage – decides to become the masked vigilante Kick-Ass. The fact that his initial efforts usually result in his being severely beaten or almost killed do not dissuade him.

However, Kick-Ass has timed his venture into superherodom poorly, for long-suffering crime boss Frank D’Amico (hardest working man in showbiz Mark Strong) is finding his operation under attack from a masked man who is keeping a much lower profile. Frank, not unreasonably, jumps to the conclusion that Kick-Ass is actually his persecutor, and with the aid of his son Chris (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) sets about laying his hands on him…

Well, here’s the big question about Kick-Ass, if you ask me: just exactly what kind of film is it supposed to be? Is it a straightforward  superhero adventure? Is it a parody of the genre, or a very dark comedy-drama? It’s really difficult to be certain because at different points it seems to be trying to be all these different things.

The thing is, that if you just look at the main storyline about Kick-Ass himself, it’s almost purely an exercise in adolescent male wish-fulfilment, presented unironically: by putting on his costume Dave eventually becomes famous and popular and lands himself a hot girlfriend (Lyndsy Fonseca). All right, he does describe himself as ‘a useless dick in a costume’ at one point (which strikes me as being pretty much on the money) and he does spend most of the film almost getting killed, but in the end he is victorious and gets pretty much everything he wants. A lot of the initial reviews of Kick-Ass focussed on the violence and profanity of the film, both of which are far beyond what you’d see in – for example – a Marvel Studios film, but if you look past that this is fundamentally one of the most conventional superhero films to be released in recent years. If anything it’s a pastiche rather than a parody, and the scenes with Dave himself aren’t really funny enough for it work as a comedy.

On the other hand, the scenes with Nicolas Cage and Chloe Grace Moretz as other crimefighters Big Daddy and Hit-Girl genuinely are darkly funny, mainly due to the dissonance between their clear devotion to one another as father and daughter, and their equal obsession with guns and violence. Cage’s performance is way out there, but it still just about works, while Moretz is also very good. I think it’s fair to say that Hit-Girl is the character from this movie who everyone remembers, and that’s not simply because she’s an eleven-year-old gun-toting masked vigilante.

Of course, I suppose we need to at least address the question of all the various scenes in which Hit-Girl swears like a trooper and gorily disposes of dozens of bad guys. It’s certainly not the case that she’s intentionally being presented as a sexualised character, which is one of the Daily Mail‘s main problems with the film, but on the other hand you’ve got a pre-teenaged girl being presented as, basically, a killing machine, and the film’s attitude seems to be ‘Hey, isn’t this cool?’ For the most part the film is so dynamic, and the action well-enough choreographed, for this not to be a problem, but I did find the climactic scenes in which Moretz and Strong violently take each other on a little troubling to watch.

I suppose if I had to sum up my issues with Kick-Ass, it would be that whole ‘Hey, isn’t this cool?’ thing. There is the odd, sometimes slightly sentimental moment of genuine idealism, emotion or poignancy, but the rest of the time it’s much more about what’s cool, or transgressively funny: I suppose I would say it’s a bit too cynical for my tastes. That said, Vaughn directs with his usual flair and energy and the script hangs together quite well. As I said, this is an impressively assembled piece of work, I’m just a bit dubious about the sentiment behind it.

Haven’t seen Kick-Ass 2 yet, as I say, but what the hell, I’ll make some predictions: it’ll be much, much more about Hit-Girl (and it’ll be interesting to see how they address the fact that Moretz has, um, matured a bit in the last three years), the transgressive stuff will be more OTT, and it’ll be trying even harder to have its cake and eat it by claiming to be some sort of ironic commentary on superhero stories while actually being a very down-the-line example of one. We shall see.

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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-Europ, 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 protectors (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 a 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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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published April 10th 2003:

[Another attempt at smart-arsery. I wish I could say it was out-of-character. Sorry everyone. Don’t worry about all the h2g2 in-jokes and just roll with it.]

Simulated dust motes danced in simulated sunlight as Shazz made yet another of her occasional attempts to clear up the mess in the H2G2 Post Office. I’m not surprised this is a virtual environment, she thought, it’s virtually uninhabitable for one thing.

Thrusting another half-dozen empty doughnut cartons into an already overflowing bin she paused to light her pipe. Rich, aromatic green fumes added to the already murky office atmosphere and a languid moment was only disturbed by a salvo of liquid barking noises as Shazz nearly coughed up a lung.

The cleaning attempt temporarily put on hold Shazz sat down behind her ink-stained desk and mused about the next edition. All the usual suspects, she thought, although as usual one member of the team was shockingly behind deadline, delaying her, inconveniencing the Towers, and letting down the other contributors. Utterly, reprehensibly irresponsible, Shazz thought with disgust. When I get my hands on –

‘Awix!’ she said, cranking a saintly smile onto her face as a familiar figure shambled in through the virtual door. There was no mistaking the pallid hairless dome, the rolls of fat, or the terrible dress-sense. ‘I was hoping you’d pop in today.’

‘Uh, well, erm,’ Awix responded with a confused smile. He stepped aside to let his slim and lovely girlfriend Lisa follow him into the office. ‘Got the, uhr, stuff if you still need it.’

‘Great. Hi Lisa,’ Shazz smiled. ‘Wow, that dress looks great on you!’

‘Thanks, it’s Italian.’ Lisa and Shazz did that French air-kissing thing – Shazz could tell Awix was watching and thinking about Tatu from the gawping lasciviousness of his expression. ‘So, what have you got for us this week?’

‘Um, right.’ Awix fished about in his pockets. ‘Freshly edited episode of 168, same again for The Edge… oh, and we were thinking about doing another TV review thing.’

That’ll play well with readers from outside the UK, thought Shazz in near-despair. ‘And what about one of your film reviews? That’s the really popular thing you do!’ Though God alone knows why…

‘Oh, yeah, that. Well, you see, I, um…’

‘What Awix is trying to say that is that he feels we’re stuck in a bit of a stylistic rut at the moment,’ Lisa explained. ‘He feels every review kicks off with some generic comments, then we write a synopsis with some cheap and obvious gags in it, then try to make serious critical points for a couple of paragraphs. He wants to try something different.’

‘Oh. Good,’ Shazz said dubiously. ‘So what did you go and see this week?’

Adaptation.,’ Awix said. ‘It’s got that guy out of Con Air in it but he’s got really fat. It’s dead weird.’

‘It comes on like the sound of one man screaming into his own navel,’ Lisa revealed. ‘It does seem like an incredibly self-indulgent film. Charlie Kaufman, the screenwriter, has written himself into his own screenplay as the main character. He was supposed to write an adaptation of Susan Orlean’s book The Orchid Thief but he’s written a film about how he impossible he actually found doing that. And God knows how or why, but the studio made it.’

‘Wasn’t this the one with a few Oscar nominations?’ Shazz enquired helpfully.

‘Uh, yeah. The fat guy, and the guy what wrote it, and wossname Cooper,’ Awix said cheerily. ‘Only one of them won though. The thing is that most of the characters are, like, real people, but made-up versions of themselves.’

‘Fancy that,’ Shazz sighed. ‘It sounds a bit self-reflexive. You know, in-jokey?’ – this last added to try and dispel Awix’s look of blank incomprehension.

‘Oh, yeah, that,’ Awix said. ‘I didn’t get all the jokes, you’d need some kind of brochure to explain it to you, probably. Well, I didn’t, Lisa was there to explain it all to me, weren’t you, chickadee? And the Kaufman guy comes off as really kind of up himself, writing himself as this neurotic geeky guy – God, I despise these self-pitying writers, always putting themselves down and fishing for compliments. He’s given himself this imaginary twin brother, too, played by the same guy out of Con Air.’

‘But to be fair to him, Kaufman makes a reasonable stab at justifying what’s basically a wildly and possibly unnecessarily eccentric and convoluted script,’ Lisa said, smiling fondly at her beloved. ‘Kaufman the character writes the script of the film he appears in, which can get a bit weird. But all the performances are really very strong and it’s a very funny film.’

‘Oh, good,’ Shazz said distractedly. Awix had started poking through the pile of litter she’d just painstakingly assembled, in search of doughnut fragments. Fat chance of that with Greebo about, she thought. ‘So how does the plot work? Is there one?’

‘Well,’ Lisa said, her face becoming more serious. ‘For most of the running time this is a film really without a conventional narrative. Kaufman sets out to write something completely at odds with the traditional screenplay structure, a story where the participants don’t have traditional aims or motivations and without a normal sense of closure. So we get a series of scenes reflecting this, intercut with him worrying about how a script of this type is actually impossible to write. He’s really trying to have his cake and eat it here but it’s enormously entertaining.

‘Then, near the end of the film, he gives in and the movie adopts an almost hyperbolically cliched thriller style, as if to mock his earlier aspirations. The shift in style is brilliantly, subtly achieved – and, come to think of it, what I’ve just said probably counts as a massive spoiler, so I’d better leave it out of the actual review when Awix and I get around to writing it. The whole film is self-indulgent and probably too clever for its own good, but it’s also an extremely witty wail of frustration from a writer, despairing of the tyranny of regular storytelling structure but also giving in and accepting that, in order to work, that kind of structure is normally essential – films need closure, characters need to grow, objectives must be attained.’ Lisa shrugged. ‘It’s as simple as that.’

‘So, to make an analogy, any kind of review, simply because it’s a review, must contain a few solid paragraphs of analysis somewhere down the line?’ Shazz enquired.

‘Yes, that’s about right,’ Lisa agreed.

Awix sighed and put down the bin he’d been rooting through. ‘I’ve been thinking about what I’m going to say in the preview of the movie,’ he announced. ‘Y’know, in the new style.’

Review, honey,’ Lisa said with an indulgent smile.

‘Whatever. I thought I’d be, like, punchy and outspoken and maybe give a rating – like three out of five little stars? And some pithy comment like how this kind of clever arty film is all very well once in while but give me something with kung fu and rappers and lapdancing any week. Oh, and then I thought I’d put in a kind of blatant plug-stroke-link for The Vault of Lies-‘

‘I shouldn’t bother, no-one ever reads the back issues,’ Shazz said. ‘What do you want to put as the byline?’

‘The what?’ Awix gawped at her.

‘The bit on the front page saying what the article’s actually about,’ Shazz sighed.

‘How about, “Another brilliant film review by Awix”?’ he said with an artless grin. ‘Or “Awix honours us with his words of wisdom once more.” Or –‘

‘How about, “Awix risks seriously pissing off his editor”?’ Shazz suggested, deadpan.

Awix blinked at her. ‘Erm, well, if that’s what you think is best. It’s only a movie for smart-arses, after all.’

‘Personally I really liked it,’ Lisa said with a shrug. ‘But it’s your column, darling. I know what you mean though – Charlie Kaufman is a brilliant writer and can pull this kind of metatextual conceit off. I shudder to think what would happen if any old amateur hack tried copying his style. One thing’s for sure, it wouldn’t be pretty.’

Shazz shuddered involuntarily. ‘No,’ she said. ‘It absolutely wouldn’t.’

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