By no means could anyone confuse Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance with what they might call “quality cinema.” Tonally it’s all over the place, narratively it’s confused, and technically it’s fairly incompetent. But whoever said camp had to adhere to accepted norms of excellence?
This second installment in the Ghost Rider franchise, a weird reboot after the tepid 2007 Ghost Rider, throws itself completely and utterly into the kitsch deep end. Nicolas Cage (Johnny Blaze/Ghost Rider) transmutes from one iteration of Nicolas Cage to another — a southerner (like his character in the first film), a man burdened with great horror (like in Face/Off), someone worried about bees (like in the Wicker Man remake) — over the course of 95 minutes. The plot, Satan (Ciarán Hinds) tries reclaiming his progeny, has the feel of a long-delayed Rosemary’s Baby knockoff, except with Satan being chased by a biker whose skull is on fire. There’s the weird religious order (that has a fortified compound full of guns and NSA-level surveillance tech, naturally) led by a monk (Christopher Lambert) who spent too much time obsessing over the Strong and Illustrated Men at some circus sideshow. Satan’s earthly minions, of course, are all politicians and business executives. Ghost Rider makes puns (“Road kill,” he says after killing someone on a road.) Ghost Rider stares longingly into the eyes of criminals for uncomfortable lengths of time. Ghost Rider vomits fire. And, in the pièce de résistance, Ghost Rider pees fire — twice, once while looking over his shoulder and giving us a slow motion “Oh, yeah” nod.
It doesn’t really matter how this stuff holds together, or if it really congeals into something normal people might call coherent. (It doesn’t, and it doesn’t.) Ghost Rider, a perennial B-character in the Marvel Comics stable created in 1972, never made much sense: An Evel Kenevel-like stunt motorcyclist makes a deal with the devil to save his father’s life, only to be turned into a biker with a flaming skull (the Leader of the Pack spit up from Hell) who collects souls for Satan. It’s a solid idea for an irregularly recurring character in Tales From the Crypt or Creepy, not the lead character of a monthly book, let alone two movies. Ghost Rider is one-note, and even that’s derivative.
The first Ghost Rider film, directed by Mark Steven Johnson (who should never have been allowed near another comic book movie after the limp rag that was Daredevil), tried elevating the character into a franchise-starting A-list action hero. But he overplayed the character’s tragic Faustian burden while almost completely ignoring how ridiculous Ghost Rider is. The result is so lifeless and interminable (save for some excellent Cage-isms, a scene-chewing Peter Fonda, and a slumming Sam Elliott) and was so reviled that it’s amazing the character got a second chance.
Spirit of Vengeance suffers, too, from one-dimensionality, with directors Neveldine/Taylor of the Crank series severely underplaying the tragedy in favor of the nonsensical. This in and of itself isn’t a bad thing. Blaze cast as a weird loner in a world where some corners accept something like Ghost Rider as normal is a good start, but Neveldine/Taylor never commit to it. The film wants to be cut from a Roger Corman cloth, but the video game aesthetic and post-converted 3D that sends an obnoxious amount of stuff that’s not Ghost Rider pee or vomit careening out of the screen is so overwhelming the film becomes, like its predecessor, boring. Even in the cheapest, creakiest Corman pictures you care for a character or a relationship. Not so here. Ghost Rider, Satan, his kid, the tattooed monk are all inconsequential, mere accelerant that propels the film from one poorly executed action sequence to the next.
The one exception is Idris Elba, who plays a true believer committing the humanity in Blaze and Satan’s child. Elba finds a nice balance between the righteous (fighting hell forces) and ridiculous (lusting after a 2000-year-old bottle of wine) and is one of he few sparks of cinematic joy in the film. The others, like Ghost Rider’s urination flame and Cage’s twitchy, live-wire performance, don’t add up to anything remotely close to a complete film. Yet there are enough of these peppered throughout the film — and even one or two half-decent moments of action, like the climactic chase scene — to keep you watching, which puts this film miles ahead of the first Ghost Rider. It’s also refreshing to experience a self-contained comic book movie. There’s no allusion to Ghost Rider existing in some greater Marvel Movie Universe; Nick Fury, Tony Stark, and Agent Coulson are nowhere to be found. Instead, we’re left with a rebellious hellspawn vomiting fire and bullets into the face of a bad guy.
If that’s not what going to the movies is all about, I don’t know what is.
An extended version of this review, which includes thoughts on the Spirit of Vengeance Blu-ray, was published at Fulvue Drive-In.