“Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance” buckles under even the lowest of expectations

Few things sting more than when high expectations are not delivered. Perhaps the only scenario of equal disappointment is when modest ambitions fail spectacularly. Such is the case of “Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance”, a film whose endless corn-ball potential is never once reached.

“Spirit of Vengeance” is an adaptation of one of the trashier comic-book-heroes out there; the story of motorcycle-stuntman Johnny Blaze, and the deal forcing him to do the Devil’s dirty work as a flaming skeletal biker. It’s a premise tasty enough to tease. But for the second time with this character , a filmmaking team has totally dropped the ball on making a coherent feature film, let alone the bad-ass one this character deserves.

Johnny’s ghostly duties in “Spirit of Vengeance” lead him to babysitting an unassuming 12-year-old who just may be the Devil’s son himself, and preventing snarky bad guys from using these powers for evil. It’s a simple enough foundation to lay some great beats onto, but the normally-hyperkinetic directing duo Neveldine/Taylor just don’t seem to have it in them.

If there’s one thing I’ve come to love about this dynamic duo, it’s their free-spirited, do-it-yourself approach to action filmmaking. It’s not uncommon of them to get the footage they need on roller-blades, and their normally computer-free aesthetics are totally refreshing.

Every quality I’ve come to love about them is absent from “Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance”. All of the jerkiness is there, but none of the rhythm, the purpose, the fun. If their past works came across as being authored by infectiously goofy teenage boys, “Spirit of Vengeance” seems like the work of a blind Parkinsons patient who’s never held a movie camera in their life.

The plot itself is little more than the protagonists travelling from Point A to Point B. Naturally, villains travel from Point C to Point B. How else would the mediocre action happen? And yes, the fact that the action’s totally one-note and repetitive is “Spirit of Vengeance”s most crushing disappointment. It consists of Nicolas Cage slowly walking towards a baddie, slowly staring into their eyes, slowly bringing them to justice, and slowly making his way to the other. It’s static, listless filmmaking about a flaming, whip-toting demon. A true cinematic miracle. D

“Chronicle” fresh in concept, flawed in execution

Few things are more satisfying than when filmmakers take established, well-worn genres and inject new ideas into them. “Chronicle” amalgamates the found-footage and superpower genres into a hybrid whose drama works far better than its action. Thankfully, it has the budgetary and storytelling constraints to emphasize the former.

It’s the story of Andrew, the kind of high-school loner only given attention when lunch is being thrown at him. His mother is dying of cancer and his father only emerges from his silence to swig beer or beat him. He’s the kind of kid to carry around a massive video-camera in the middle of a high-school hallway, and in fact, for the film’s documenting purposes, he does.

When Andrew ventures out of his comfort-zone and heads to a party, he and his cousin Matt and the premier “popular-kid” Steve stumble upon a mysterious alien rock. The film cuts ahead several weeks, as the boys begin to realize they’ve developed telekinetic powers: lifting things, throwing things, even flying. However, the powers give the boys an amplified sense of strength and responsibility, strength that Andrew progressively uses for less moral ends. The film does not end well.

“Chronicle” is a surprisingly moral film, one whose primary concern is the destructive (and constructive) ends to which people will use power. But where it really impressed me was the realistic depiction of its teenage leads: “Chronicle” wisely does away with the Hollywood cliche that if main characters gain power, they use it for good. Not a soul is saved in this film, no grandmas saved from oncoming vans or cats retrieved from trees. It’s used to impress, goof around, rob, and eventually kill. It’s the dark side of an established archetype, and I love it.

The actual execution of all these events are a mixed bag. The three lead actors Dane DeHaan, Alex Russell and Michael B. Jordan are all remarkably convincing. They all undergo huge transformations in the film, both moral and physical, and never strayed from believability for a second. Jordan in particular demonstrates great charisma, wholly delivering on the past promise of his stint on the great program “The Wire”.

But where “Chronicle” falls way short is the visual effects. Label it a shallow criticism if you desire, but a huge component of this film depends on our ability to buy into what these kids are doing, and I just never could get into it. This is especially rough given how effects-driven the action-packed climax is. I fully admire what they were aiming to do given their low budget ($15 million; a fortune for us, chump change for Hollywood), and perhaps this is an example of the studio system crippling a work’s artistic potential. Regardless of whose fault it is, it remains crippled.

Trank’s use of the documentary format is similarly variegated. Unlike other found-footage films, “Chronicle”s use of the format actually reveals things about our characters: Andrew’s constant filming suggests quirkiness and observation at first, but as his character changes and he mentally has the camera “follow” him, it reveals a sort of narcissism and darkness. Unlike, say, “Paranormal Activity”, “Chronicle”s footage comes not from circumstance, but emotion. But the ways in which the footage is “captured” strains believability very frequently: why characters would have cameras laying around as their father verbally assaults them? My complaints are, however, purely logistical.

What’s most exciting about “Chronicle” is the names it puts on the map. The three principal actors and director Josh Trank are already being signed to new projects, but first-time screenwriter Max Landis is really the champion. He’s taken countless stale elements and given them new life, in spite of a studio who didn’t give it the attention and financing to make it cohere smoothly. Which brings me to my final point. F**k you, Fox. B