Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (2011)
When it comes to comic book movies, Ghost Rider is not what one would call a second-, third-, or even fourth-tier superhero. I don’t know who was clamoring for a sequel to 2007’s Ghost Rider. I don’t know who was clamoring for the original movie. I don’t know who was clamoring for a comic book about a demonically possessed motorcycle rider in the first place. And yet, here we are, and here is Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance.
Okay, it’s not that surprising this movie was made, given how films based on Marvel characters are currently grossing more than the GDP of small countries. Even the first Ghost Rider made over $200 million worldwide, somehow, even though it was as utterly forgettable as writer-director Mark Steven Johnson’s other monument to superhero mediocrity, 2003’s Daredevil. (Johnson gets a producer’s credit here, which I hope amounted to, “Here’s a check, please go away.”)
Ghost Rider’s alter ego is Johnny Blaze, a motorcycle stuntman who sold his soul to the devil, and is now cursed with transforming into a satanic emissary with a flaming skull whenever he’s in the presence of evil. Nicolas Cage is back in the role of Blaze, of course. Cage is a self-professed comic book fan (dude named his son Kal-El, for crying out loud), and since his window for playing a superhero with an actual superhero physique opened and closed with Tim Burton in 1997, this is probably all that’s left for him, comic book movie-wise.
As usual, he’s ridiculously over the top. But by Nicolas Cage standards, this is actually one of his more subdued performances. On a scale of Adaptation to Deadfall, his acting here only rates about a Snake Eyes. But thankfully, he does give us at least one meme-worthy moment with “He’s scrapin’ at the door! Scrapin’ at the doooooooah!!”
In Mark Steven Johnson’s place, we get Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, AKA “Neveldine/Taylor”, the same directors who brought us Crank, Crank 2, and Gamer. The two men are crass idiots who aim for both the lowest common denominator and the shortest attention spans. This is in no way intended as an insult.
Crank was a crazy, hilarious ride, a product of sick genius (Crank 2 and Gamer left out the “genius” part) that was unapologetic about its mindlessness and lunacy. And here, the directors have a lead actor just as unapologetic about his lunacy (though, that might be because he’s not really aware he’s a lunatic). Put them together, and surely we’re in for 100 minutes of unbridled insanity!
Or not. Neveldine/Taylor do inject the Ghost Rider sequel with enough energy to keep it from being a total washout; I give them credit for at least trying to push the boundaries here, unlike 95% of comic book movies, which play things as safe as possible. But not even they can counteract the direct-to-video, anything-for-a-paycheck vibe that pervades this whole thing.
As far as Satan-themed plots go, Spirit of Vengeance’s story is pretty bog standard: The Devil, or some variation thereof named Roarke (Ciaran Hinds, taking over for Peter Fonda) finds his physical manifestation weakening. And so he looks to pass his spirit on to a new vessel. In this case, the vessel is his son, a young boy named Danny Ketch (random shout-out to the second Ghost Rider in the comics) born to a Romanian woman and former drug addict who also sold her soul to Roarke. Or as Johnny himself artfully puts it, she’s “the devil’s baby mama!”
An alcoholic priest (Idris Elba) hires Johnny to rescue the kid. Luckily for him, Blaze is just hanging out in Eastern Europe for no reason. Well, there is a reason, and it’s that shooting a film there is a whole lot cheaper, but at least they don’t try to pass off Romania as Southern California.
Johnny saves the kid, along the way bonding with him and becoming a strange surrogate father figure. And as payment for his services, Johnny is taken to a powerful order of monks led by a tattoo-covered Christopher Lambert who promise to remove his curse. (Funniest low-key Cage moment: Johnny is introduced to the sect of intense-looking monks with face tattoos, and he simply throws his head back and goes, “Sup.”)
Eventually, Johnny goes through some sort of Rider detox that involves lying in a chamber bathed in sunlight, and seizing and convulsing and laughing and yelling random non-sequiturs to no one like “Merry Christmas, you assholes!”
But alas, the moment Johnny gives up his powers is when he truly needs them the most. Otherwise known as Superhero Movie Cliché #8,775.
This film is extremely slow to get going, but it rewards your patience with a few impressive action set pieces. A new wrinkle is added to the Ghost Rider character, which is that every time he commandeers a new vehicle, it becomes imbued with the same hellfire power as his motorcycle. (I liked how Danny asks all the nitpicky questions about this “power” that comic book nerds would ask, only to find out that Johnny himself doesn’t have a clue how it works.)
This leads to a spectacular sequence where the Rider takes over a big construction crane, causing all sorts of destruction and mayhem. This is right after the Rider takes dozens of bullets to the face, and then vomits them all out as a molten stream. Sadly, this is about the high point of the movie, and there’s still 45 minutes left to go.
The film isn’t afraid to go for humor, but there’s none of the sitcom-y jokes of the first film. At no point does Johnny listen to Karen Carpenter. Instead, we get one-off sight gags, like an animated montage that implies Jerry Springer might be the Devil (the directors’ pop culture knowledge ends at 1998, I guess), a genuinely funny bit involving the shelf life of Twinkies, and another where Danny visualizes what happens when Ghost Rider has to pee.
True to other Neveldine/Taylor efforts, there are moments where you’ll ask yourself, Did they just go there? Indeed, they just went there. Too bad that in this movie, those moments are few and far between.
Just like before, the Devil has servants. Here, Roarke imbues one of his servants with the power to make organic matter spontaneously decay. (Why doesn’t Roarke give himself this power, and touch Johnny Blaze, instantly ending the movie?) I suppose the filmmakers can be forgiven for forgetting the main henchman had the exact same power in the first film—Most of the people who saw it did.
However, it’s much more graphic here. Not only do we see people wither and decompose before our eyes, but we even get to see fuzzy mold sprouting across their faces. It’s pretty disgusting, but the camera doesn’t linger long upon it, as well as other gruesome shots, thanks to the expected (yet still disappointing) PG-13 rating. This movie certainly pushes the rating to its limits, but it really should have just been rated R. This ain’t Spider-Man. How many teenagers really know or care who Ghost Rider is, anyway?
By all objective measurements, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance sucks, but I have to admit I’d probably watch a third installment. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen anytime soon; Thanks to this film’s lackluster reception, the rights to Ghost Rider were allowed to revert back to Marvel, who currently have no plans to do anything with the character. It’s too bad, because for the first time, Ghost Rider actually comes off as a scary anti-hero, and I can almost understand why he exists in the first place.