I have to hand it to Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance. It’s bad in an often nutso way that’s a frantic, scrambled, mush instead of the steady mediocrity that was the original 2007 adaptation of this Marvel comic book character. But just because it feels uncompromised and sometimes defiantly uncommercial doesn’t, in the long run, make the film any less bad. Maybe we should just call it quits on this whole turning Ghost Rider into a movie thing. It’s clearly not working out for anyone.
Nicolas Cage returns as Johnny Blaze, the stunt motorcycle driver who made a deal with the Devil and is now forever cursed to roam the world occasionally turning into a burning skeleton and sucking up evil souls. This time around he’s joined by Idris Elba, who pops up now and then to speak in a French accent and pretend he’s in a movie that’s actually making him look cool. He puts the plot in motion by telling Blaze to go rescue a boy (Fergus Riordan) and his mother (Violante Placido) from the Devil’s Earthbound proxy (Ciarán Hinds) and his minion (Johnny Whitworth).
The Devil’s been making lots of deals, I guess, since the poor woman made some kind of arrangement with him hoping he’d never come to collect. Apparently his evilness causes his mortal form to wear out and he’s hoping to use the boy as a fresh incarnation for his Earthly evil. So that’s what Ghost Rider is up against and it all should be rather straightforward. What could be more exciting – or exploitative – than saving a child from the clutches of demonic possession? Instead, the whole thing feels half-hearted. Where’s the sense of urgency? It’s a movie that invokes good versus evil, God versus Devil, end-of-the-world stakes and then is content to putter around Eastern Europe staging some small-scale moments of dubious effects work.
The story by David S. Goyer has been cobbled together into a screenplay with Scott M. Gimple and Seth Hoffman. It’s a thin, shaky, thing, but at least it was a good choice to hand it over to directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor. They’ve gained something of a cult following by making energetic trash that makes action cinema into the avant garde. Their films like Crank and Gamer push up against the boundaries of conventional style, shaking and careening along action sequences filmed with a great deal of grit and mess and edited into spastic, borderline-nonsensical inventiveness. There’s an improvisatorial madness to their method that leads them to push up against the boundaries of good taste as well. (That’s the main reason why their Crank 2 often rubs me the wrong way).
But you’d think Ghost Rider is a would-be franchise that could benefit from a little extra madness, especially with Cage in the lead role. He’s an actor who has been making lots of bad choices of roles for a least a decade now. You can say what you want about his acting, but there’s no denying that he’s a man who commits to his performances. As Johnny Blaze he exudes a struggle against his literal inner demon that writes a smoldering pain across the features of his face. But when he turns into a flaming skeleton everything that makes Cage so erratically appealing, his warped wit and unconventional line readings that put Jeff Goldblum to shame, disappear, only to be replaced by a stiff CGI void.
Neveldine and Taylor don’t bring enough craziness with which to surround Cage. They do some of their unpredictable stylistic thing but their fractured, high-speed, frenzy wreaks havoc with their 3D compositions. Some of it is quite striking. They bring one or two nice visual ideas to the proceedings. One scene uses a split-screen that gains eye-scrambling effect with the added third dimension. An early shot of Elba shooting a gun while falling off the side of a cliff is some kind of slo-mo action poetry. But the bulk of the picture is a hazy, shaky, cheap-looking nightmare of a visual scheme. It’s monotonously dark and muddied; together with the movie’s surprisingly violent content, that makes this one of the grimmest, hardest PG-13s I’ve ever seen. Maybe it skated past the ratings board because it all seems too inconsequential and incomprehensible.
It should just be a simple chase picture. It is a simple chase picture. But characters never seem to put much effort into actually chasing each other. Good guys, bad guys, and all guys in between know just where to show up and let special effects happen all around them. There’s no momentum here. Characters pause to explain backstory that was apparently too expensive to film so instead it’s filled in with drawings that augment the exposition. These characters explain complicated rules about powers and set up ticking clocks of plot mechanics, but there’s no real sense of how the powers actually work or when these ticking clocks are actually going to hit some kind of deadline. All that’s left is a dull movie. I kept waiting for it to spark to life, but from start to finish it can’t catch fire like it should.