February 17th sees the release of a sequel to one of Marvel Comics’ more modest successes in film - Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, directed by hyperactive filmmakers Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor. Though it was poorly received when released in 2007, the first Ghost Rider made enough of a profit for a sequel to go ahead. Angry Europeans like Lars Von Trier and Gaspar Noe aside, few modern filmmakers have split people in these crazy times as much as the directing duo of Neveldine/Taylor. If you don’t know these two filmmakers very well then you will know their influence. Their films consist of loud, over the top narratives often with a very near the line lurid sensibility. You may love them or hate them but you can’t deny that they set out to actually make you feel something whilst watching their films, whether that is disgusted or exhilarated is down to the individual. Without their particular brand of crazy gonzo trashy action movie then it’s possible we would never have seen films like Shoot ‘Em Up, Hobo with a Shotgun or Drive Angry. Not that these films were directly influenced by the Neveldine/Taylor ‘style’ but without the success of the first Crank then maybe the green light wouldn’t have been forthcoming for these movies which are more ‘out there’ than most.
What might surprise you is where these two got their start in the industry. Mark Neveldine majored in psychology and drama at college and was an award-winning actor and director of about twenty five off Broadway plays. He then became a director of photography for some documentaries, music videos and commercials. Brian Taylor’s background is more indicative of the types of films he would eventually be known for making. Taylor spent a good deal of his young life as a touring punk guitarist, journalist and musician before stumbling his way into film working as a director of photography on shorts and independent features. The pair of them teamed up to direct the low budget surreal adventure The Keys aka No Dirham, No Disco. On the set of this film is where the duo invented the ‘roller dolly’, a technique similar to Sam Raimi’s ram-o-cam where one of them would don roller skates whilst holding the camera and risking life and limb to put you the viewer right into the action.
The pair then moved on to shooting a documentary before going home and being snapped up by Radical Media to work on commercials and music videos. The two of them directed award-winning commercials for Nike and KFC before going full tilt armed with their roller skates and buckets of red bull into their first feature, Crank. We think it’s fair to say that the duo have not quite lived up to the promise they displayed with Crank thus far, but this could all change with the release of Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance. What better time then to look back on their career so far…
Crank is quite simply like nothing else that had been seen up to this point, some people will point to Wayne Kramer’s equally nuts Running Scared earlier in the year as the kick off point for the gonzo action movie but Crank is where it was really noticed. The story is a simple one evoking the classic noir DOA, the execution is anything but classic. Chev Chelios (Jason Statham) is a hitman who has been injected with a poison by the triads that will kill him unless he can keep his heart rate and adrenaline pumping. Based on this premise Neveldine and Taylor throw every single adrenaline pumping situation they can think of at the story. Chelios indulges in constant violence, drug abuse, energy drinks and public sex in order to keep his adrenaline up. All of this is shot in HD in weird angles that evoke both video games as well as the ‘60s Batman TV series. Jason Statham has a whale of a time not trying to act but just being relaxed and himself because he knows how ridiculous the whole thing is and arguably it results in his best work. If you go with it then you will have a damn good time, if you are more inclined to watch films like The English Patient then you will be entering a world of pain. The movie is best enjoyed with a whole bottle of Mountain Dew and some Skittles to really get into the spirit of the thing. In 2006 amongst films like The Black Dahlia, Children of Men and Clerks 2, Crank blasted its way into cinemas and did 42 million worldwide. Not much money in the scheme of things but working of a 12 million budget it was considered a success. Neveldine/Taylor had arrived..
Neveldine and Taylor stepped away from behind the camera for this 2007 thriller, choosing to write and produce while newcomer Marc Schloermann directed. The story concerns a promising medical student played by Heroes star Milo Ventimalgia who gets involved in a dangerous after hours game played by his colleagues regarding who can commit the perfect murder using their medical knowledge. The film feels every bit as lurid and edgy as the other films that Neveldine/Taylor have been involved in but without the duo’s energy behind the camera it feels flat and lacks purpose. The film never really had the backing that Crank did and had a limited release of both sides of the Atlantic. Even now it is Schloermann’s only feature credit.
Gamer sat on a shelf for a while, changing titles a few times, despite getting quite a lot of excitement going when it was in production. This was a film by the Crank guys after all but with a futuristic Running Man style narrative and starring Gerard Butler who was hot from the success of 300. Gamer takes place in the near future where gaming has gone to the next level - using a technology that’s been developed into ‘Society’ by creator Ken Castle (Michael C.Hall) popular gaming now sees actual human protagonists being controlled by people in front of their TVs at home. ‘Society’ is like The Sims but with real people who volunteer and become employees to be used as pawns by people at home. Castle also develops ‘Slayers’, a Call of Duty style game with convicts used as the assassins on the battlefield. Kable (Gerard Butler) has become a major celebrity on the playing field along with his user and will shortly win his freedom if he survives the final round. Castle’s regime is opposed by the Humanz, a resistance movement with a fondness for retro arcade games, who believe that Castle is controlling minds and brainwashing the world. Neveldine and Taylor’s style is now once again present and correct and places you smack bang into the midst of the action with barely a moment to breathe. The worlds of Society and Slayers are really well visualised and get you into this world gone mad where every pervert and degenerate is free to indulge their depraved fantasies. Where the film falls down is in its script. The first hour is brilliant but the final act where it actually tries to be about something and tell a story about fighting back against a genuine world threat is not well developed enough and feels rushed. An extra 30 minutes story telling would have made all the difference here and at best the final film is a guilty pleasure. Sadly the movie was not a success at the box office and critics hated the derivative nature of the piece. The same critics who praised their style with Crank turned on the duo and lambasted the hyperactive nature of the film.
Crank: High Voltage (2009)
Actually shot after Gamer but released before the film was the sequel to Crank. A sequel was perhaps inevitable considering the growing cult that was building around the first film. Crank: High Voltage begins directly after the first movie with Chev Chelios being scooped up off the street and sent to hospital. In hospital his heart is removed and placed in storage and Chelios is given an artificial one. Three months later he wakes up and escapes, learning that he has to keep his heart battery going with jolts of electricity whilst he searches for his old heart to get his doctor to put back into his chest. It’s basically the same plot as the first movie; it even has almost identical scenes, except everything is ramped up and more outrageous. It’s more lurid, more violent and frankly more ridiculous. Neveldine and Taylor are allowed to indulge every drug induced creative whim they ever had which isn’t necessarily a good thing and results in a film that is borderline unwatchable at times. This is best demonstrated in a scene where inexplicably Statham and his enemy take on Godzilla style proportions complete with paper mache heads as they fight in a power plant. The film failed at the box office but was a substantial hit on DVD. A third film featuring Idris Elba has been talked about by the duo which presumably will have a robotic Statham trying to keep his joints from rusting or something ridiculous.
Jonah Hex (2010)
Despite writing the screenplay for this disaster, Neveldine/Taylor were fired as directors on the project due to those creative differences that we hear so much about. The finished film was directed by Jimmy Hayward, the director of Horton Hears a Who, so yeah a director really suited to the material. Sometimes films that fail completely at the box office and are labelled turkeys don’t deserve the label, but sometimes, as is the case here, the label is absolutely appropriate. To be fair though it’s hard to see how Neveldine and Taylor’s distinctive style could have improved a nonsensical and by the numbers screenplay to begin with. It certainly feels like a chunk of the story is missing and perhaps this is the problem. The finale makes no sense whatsoever when envisioned stylistically by a directing duo and then directed by someone else. Further proof that the western genre and fantasy do not mix.
Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (2011)
The first Ghost Rider made a healthy 237 million worldwide which meant that a sequel was perhaps inevitable. Apart from a couple of sequences, I don’t think the first film is anyone’s idea of a great comic book adaptation. A major part of the problem is that director Mark Steven Johnson is not a good fit for the material and the film feels too safe. For the sequel the producers hired Neveldine/Taylor and I think you’ll agree that this makes much more stylistic sense considering the nature of the comic book. Nicolas Cage again assumes the role of Johnny Blaze/Ghost Rider and is joined by Idris Elba, Ciaran Hinds, Christopher Lambert, Anthony Head and Violante Placido. The sequel finds Blaze hiding out in Europe when he is called upon to become his flame drenched alter ego to stop the devil from assuming human form. Judging by the trailer, Neveldine/Taylor’s distinctive style is present and correct in stunning high octane action sequences and over the top dark humour (including Ghost Rider pissing fire). They also seem to have perfected the motion capture technology which allows Cage to fully play a convincing flaming demon. This was major let down in the first film where the effects did not match the ambition despite a 110 million budget. Early word so far has been mixed with some proclaiming the film to be awful and some saying it’s a damn good night out at the flicks. We get to see for ourselves this weekend when Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance is unleashed in UK cinemas.