If nothing else, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance gets an A for effort. But across the board what we have here is a movie that’s trying very hard to be something that it’s not: a campy, winking, cult film in the making that’s part Leone western and part remedial passion play mixed with the amped up, Red Bull-fuelled delirium of the Crank films.
Rarely does a movie try so hard and miss so spectacularly. Maybe it’s because you can’t make a balls out action picture with PG-13 limitations, and maybe it’s because you can’t do camp right when only the leading man is in on the joke. Or just maybe it’s because no matter how many times Marvel’s tried to make a marquee hero out of Ghost Rider, the whole endeavor’s doomed to failure. But what a failure it is.
On the plus side, filmmakers Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor get that Ghost Rider isn’t a hero molded in the same stuff as Spider-Man, Iron Man, et al. Mark Steven Johnson’s first Ghost Rider film was too clean, too antiseptic, and followed too many of the supposed rules of the superhero movie even though I think any comic book fan will tell you that Ghost Rider only loosely fits the definition of a superhero. A guy who’s cursed by the Devil isn’t a superhero, and a guy that accepts that curse to bring vengeance to those that deserve it is certainly not a heroic ideal.
Catching up with Johnny Blaze in Spirit of Vengeance, we find him on the run in Eastern Europe, struggling to control his darker half. Flinching at sunlight, and seeking shelter in abandoned and desolate places far from human contact, Blaze is found by Moreau (Idris Elba). What Moreau is, is never quite explained, but he tells Blaze that he needs the Rider’s help to protect a young boy from becoming the new vessel for The Devil. If they can guard the boy and keep him safe till after the sun rises on the winter solstice, Moreau will lift the curse off Blaze and return his soul. Good deal, except for all those minions of The Devil in the way.
The primary minion is Ray Carrigan (Johnny Whitworth), a non-descript mercenary charged with bringing the boy to The Devil (now perplexingly called Roarke and played by Ciarán Hinds). If the name “Ray Carrigan” is familiar to you, then you just might be a fan of the Ghost Rider comic because Carrigan becomes Blackout, a demonic figure with the ability to cause anything he touches to decay (except for Twinkies). The make-up job turning Whitworth into Blackout is kind of horrible, and that’s putting aside the thought that creating an adversary worthy of the Rider seems almost secondary. Blackout is one of Ghost Rider’s most consistent nemeses from the comic, but here he gets shafted like Bane in Batman & Robin.
Mephisto, I mean Roarke, also gets the shaft because Hinds, a typically above board actor with weight and gravitas, seems bored and disinterested every moment he’s on screen. Say what you want about Peter Fonda from Ghost Rider 1, but he at least looked like he was having a good time, even laying aside the cleverness of casting one of the guys from Easy Rider to play The Devil in a movie about a demonic motorcyclist. And if anyone can tell me what Idris Elba is doing as Moreau, you’re smarter than I am because how a wine drinking, motorcycle-riding black ninja fits into the Ghost Rider mythology, I have no idea.
Oddly enough the only one who seems to know what’s going on is Nicolas Cage, who brings some of that typical craziness to the part of Johnny Blaze in this outing. In the recent past, Cage has restrained himself when he really shouldn’t have in movies like the first Ghost Rider and Drive Angry 3-D; he would play things too seriously, too straight. In Spirit of Vengeance he gets a little more manic, and a little more madcap. You at least get the feeling that he’s a guy tormented by living in the same mind of the demon, and fortunately, the flipside, mopey Nicolas Cage is left home for this outing.
Neveldine and Taylor also seem to “get it” to an extent. This Ghost Rider is rawer, a bit more real and a great deal grimier than the first film. Mostly though, they seem to be having a bit of fun, and they seem to enjoy playing with the Rider’s powers a bit. One of the big action scenes involves Ghost Rider turning a piece of industrial demolition equipment into hellfire concoction of doom used to pulverize all enemies. The climactic highway chase was also very well done, but if there was one noticeable improvement in this Ghost Rider over the last, it was the look of the Rider himself. Let’s just say he was crispier in this film, and the character seemed to be much more vivid in how he’s interacted with on screen. It goes to show you that there’s a world of difference that can be made in CG characters in just a few years times.
But Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance still feels like it’s holding itself back. What’s the point of introducing the notion of Ghost Rider pissing fire if there isn’t going to be a scene later of the Rider defecating on someone in flame. There was also a scene where Blaze shows the boy Danny how to ride a bike, which bordered far too much on sickening Spielbergian cuteness for my liking. I give the filmmakers credit for putting significantly more effort into creating something that feels more like a Ghost Rider movie in Spirit of Vengeance, but much like the comic it’s based on, what seems like a good idea on paper, doesn’t necessarily come across as one in execution.
I’m not sure “better than Ghost Rider” is exactly a ringing endorsement for Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, but it’s the best complement in could probably be paid in context.