If you’re truly savvy about where you spend your money, you’ll call it future late-night cable movie viewing.
In Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance we catch up to Johnny Blaze (Nic Cage) many years after the events of the first film. “The Rider” has apparently grown into an all-consuming force of nature that Blaze desperately tries to hold in check; until the presence of evil inevitably sets The Rider loose again, to feed on the souls of the guilty.
The Rider is presented with a full buffet of evildoers when a group of ruthless mercenaries storm a church in pursuit of a young boy named Danny Ketch (Fergus Riordan), who The Devil (Ciarán Hinds) intends to use as his human vessel. Blaze claims that The Rider is no savior, but when warrior monk Moreau (Idris Elba) promises to lift the curse from his soul as reward for saving Danny, The Ghost Rider is given new purpose, and an opportunity to be more than just a demon in the night.
I can best sum up Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance with a quote that a fellow audience member spoke as the end credits rolled: “This one makes the first one look real good.” There were plenty of people who disliked director Mark Steven Johnson’s somewhat tame adaptation of the Marvel Knights superhero – but Johnson at least made a fully-formed and structured cinematic tale. The same cannot be said for Crank directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor.
Spirit of Vengeance plays like an extreme sports video dressed as a superhero spoof. While the directing duo indeed create some impressive shots with their daredevil shooting style, those individual shots do not translate into impressive sequences, and on the whole, a lot of the action in the film isn’t even all that impressive. [Note: if you’ve seen the Ghost Rider 2 trailers, you’ve already seen everything this film has to offer.] When things aren’t rip-roaring at an ADD pace (which is almost never), the camera work looks about on par with what you would expect from an extreme sports video shot on handheld cameras – i.e., on the amateur side and never really “cinematic.”
With a list of screenwriters that includes Batman Begins and Dark Knight story man David S. Goyer, alongside TV writers Seth Hoffman (Prison Break, FlashForward) and Scott M. Gimple (The Walking Dead), one would expect that Spirit of Vengeance would at least offer some sweet action, thrills and a touch of compelling drama. Instead, what we get is one long chase sequence disguised as a story, punctuated by terrible dialogue and scene after scene where it feels like the actors improvised everything, rather than working from any kind of script.
To give an example: in one scene Blaze and Danny’s mother, Nadya (Violante Placido), interrogate a bad guy, and what we’re treated to is a “Crazy Nic Cage” homage, with Cage going on a manic tirade in his signature high pitched squeal, complete with cheap CGI conflation between his human and Ghost Rider faces. A joy to watch on YouTube, sure, but a waste of screen time when you’ve paid a high price for an entertaining 3D superhero flick. The treatment of the Rider is even worse, as Neveldine and Taylor leave the comic book source material behind, in favor of a Ghost Rider who is best described as being Michael Myers with a flaming head (i.e., a robotic killing machine).
Speaking of 3D: there are some nice moments for the format, but most of them involve ‘in your face’ antics like The Rider spitting back a stream of bullets, wreaking fiery havoc, or yes, pissing flames. The rest of the time, the format – combined with the directors’ frenetic shooting style – is more headache than enhancement. There are some animated segments throughout the film that offer some nice Gothic artistry, but they are spliced rather awkwardly with the live action.
The film offers almost no character development to speak of, and instead relishes in creating a handful of offbeat characters. Nic Cage is almost to the point of self-parody with his oddball screen persona; Idris Elba (usually a strong performer in any role) is resigned to stumbling around playing an overly happy cat-eyed drunken warrior (who does very little ass-kicking); and Ciarán Hinds is wasted (and confusing) in his portrayal of The Devil, who sounds like the only Texan in Romania. Christopher Lambert even has a brief appearance in the film… but still manages to look equally as ridiculous as his co-stars.
Johnny Whitworth channels all of his inner dirtbag to play the head mercenary who is transformed into iconic Ghost Rider villain, Blackout. The villain has some cool powers (creating localized eclipses and rotting living things), but the amateurish direction makes those powers come off as… well, amateurish in execution. Violante Placido tries to give her tortured mother character some depth and dramatic resonance, but whatever success her efforts yield feel wholly out of place in this film, which does not seem to be taking one iota of this character, story or mythos seriously, even for a second.
On the whole, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance plays like a film made by two directors mistakenly lifted out of their small niche lane of filmmaking, who don’t care all that much about the character, the source material, story – or really anything besides satisfying their own crude humor and action junkie impulses. Neveldine and Taylor deserve a bit of credit for at least trying something different – but ultimately, the material simply does not mesh with their filmmaking style.
Call it a failed experiment, call it the next Punisher: War Zone - and if you’re truly savvy about where you spend your money, you’ll call it future late-night cable movie viewing.
Here’s the trailer for Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (which just might be enough):
Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action and violence, some disturbing images, and language. Now playing in 2D and 3D theaters.