I don’t envy the makers of Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, the sequel to a critical flop based on a comic book that’s been limping in and out of circulation for over forty years. In fact, I suspect the source material owes its longevity more to artist Mike Ploog’s kick-ass character design than to the limited premise of a man possessed by the demonic embodiment of revenge. After all, the series started in the seventies, when pulp horror and road movies were all the rage, and only became a franchise in the nineties, when the comics market exploded and everything needed to look extreme, yeah!
Simply put, Marvel Comics’ Ghost Rider is a C-list super-hero property that doesn’t work as super-hero fiction. We know this because the first film in 2007 introduced the protagonist, Johnny Blaze (Nicolas Cage), as a sorcery-themed Spider-Man and garnered the enthusiasm of just about nobody. Spirit of Vengeance takes the opposite tact. Instead of gobbling candy from a martini glass, our hero now downs hard liquor from inexplicably dusty bottles. Instead of fighting powerful elemental beings, he cackles idly as if to give his all-too-human prey a head start and generate suspense.
In short, the filmmakers are treating Ghost Rider as a B-movie monster, sort of like Pumpkinhead or the Wolfman except his picture looks way cooler on leather jackets. From the deserted Eastern European locations to the recycled plot about shifty monks and a boy (Fergus Riordan) destined to become the Antichrist, everything about Spirit of Vengeance screams low-budget horror. The acting even comes off hammy, what with Nicolas Cage randomly shouting every other line and Ciarán Hinds doing his best DeNiro impression as Satan.
In theory, this approach ought to have solved a problem inherent to the Ghost Rider concept: the protagonist’s relative invulnerability. Watching a demonic spirit dispatch an endless string of Romanian thugs may bore even the most avid action fan, but the mismatched power levels at least pay off when the mad creature turns its attention to the good guys. Unfortunately, directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor never follow through on the idea beyond a chase sequence or two.
For that matter, they don’t stick to anything that might be conceived as a narrative arc or, heaven forbid, character depth. Consider the bit when Johnny reveals his true motivations in dealing with the devil, the way his heartfelt confession gets shoehorned between a mythic flashback and an incoherent light show, never to be mentioned again. His final exchange with Nadya (Violante Placido), the would-be Antichrist’s mother, also feels like a few lines might be missing, or at least a silent beat so we can process the scene’s implications.
It’s as if the directors had vowed to capture ADD on celluloid. That would explain all the frantic camera movements and puerile digressions. Maybe I’m getting too old for this, but I fail to see the humour in Ghost Rider shooting fire out of his penis like a bad STD mascot. The gag certainly doesn’t warrant a callback just before the climactic battle. In fairness, the flights of fancy sometimes aid the flow of the movie. Take, for example, the hero’s tongue-in-cheek narration, which lists illegal downloads as cause for eternal damnation. The spoonful of irreverence not only helps the exposition go down; it also makes Johnny more relatable, given he spends half the runtime as a digital skeleton with flames around its head.
I suspect I would have shown more patience for Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance if I had discovered it as a straight-to-video exploitation flick, but the movie got a theatrical release with largely useless 3D glasses, cost nearly $60 million to make, and stars such recognizable faces as Nicolas Cage (whose name still means something), Idris Elba (who surely deserves better), and Christophe Lambert (I know: who cares?). I understand the studios not wanting to waste an established franchise, but sometimes it’s better to be a big fish in a home-market pond than a malformed guppy drowning in the salty waters of, you know, quality expectations.