Here's a note for the executives at Marvel Knights, one of the five production companies that pasted together Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance: not every comic-book character deserves a film franchise. Sure, superheroes have enthralled readers for decades, but some of them are so dull that not even Nicolas Cage can make them interesting for more than ten minutes on screen. It's doubly problematic if the co-directors of the Crank series can't keep me from nodding off during chase scenes in which one or more of the characters is on fire.
The one thing this movie has going for it is that it's a fraction of a fraction of a fraction better than the 2007 original. The opening stunts are truly spectacular, with few CG enhancements evident in a scene where a man flies off a motorcycle, over the side of a bridge, and into a chasm while shooting at his pursuers. I credit AMC Theatres for showing me a three-minute featurette on the making of this scene before just about every movie I've attended in the last two months; without this commercial-before-the-commercials, I wouldn't have appreciated the fact that one of the directors followed the actor off the bridge while strapped into a harness with the camera--in a real-life, dangerous location. Sadly, this is the most exciting aspect of the film. My advice: pay to see a good movie instead, and get the best part of Spirit of Vengeance for free.
I also appreciate the much-improved Ghost Rider CGI. The first time around, the main character looked like a half-texture-mapped computer model whose fiery head was created with a base-settings plug-in. In the new movie, his eerie, bug-eyed skull is charred a deep black, with hints of glistening tar caked on the bone. The flames are much cooler now, too, crackling, weaving, and generally acting like real-life fire (as close to "real life" as you can get with a bike-riding hellspawn).
Besides those minor points, there's nothing here to recommend. Practically all of the main character's history and motivation can be figured out by looking at him: motorcycle stunt man Johnny Blaze (Cage) made a deal with the Devil (Ciaran Hinds) to save his dying father's life; Satan rigged the agreement, marrying a vengeance demon to Blaze's soul. Now, whenever ten minutes goes by without explosions or shouting--sorry, I mean, whenever Blaze encounters evil, he transforms into the Rider and devours the spirits of nearby sinners.
Spirit of Vengeance grafts this Hulk-on-a-Harley premise onto the nine-billionth Nearly-Catatonic-Child-Who Holds-the-Key-to-Everything-and-Must-Be-Protected-from-the-Forces-of-Darkness-By-a-Troubled-Antihero movie. In this case, it's the son of Satan (Fergus Riordan), who, with the help of his mother (Violante Placido), the Ghost Rider, and a French monk/mercenary named Moreau (Idris Elba, rising so far above the material he can only be seen from space), must make a perilous journey across Eastern Europe to a holy sanctuary. If he can remain hidden from the old man until after a prophesied date, he will...um, stop being evil or something?**
Who knows? Who cares?
Look, once the words "Eastern Europe" pop up in the first two minutes, you know that every cent of this film's meager budget was spent on hiring Cage back and improving the CGI. Interesting locations and an engaging, imaginative script didn't even come up at the pitch meeting, I promise you. I have nothing against Eastern Europe, but it's become the dumping ground for overly budget-conscious studios. "Why spend half a million bucks on closing off two blocks in L.A. for a week," the executives figure, "when we can shoot all of Bulgaria for thirty-five cents and some signed Raising Arizona DVDs?"
I'm kidding, of course, but you wouldn't know that from watching Spirit of Vengeance. The movie is gray, desolate, and full of rotten, broken-down buildings populated by burly, Cro-Magnon-types with machine guns. The only things separating this from In The Land of Blood and Honey are genocide and quality.
Screenwriters Scott M. Gimple, Seth Hoffman, and David S. Goyer do their best to keep the audience awake by giving Cage a couple of classic flip-out scenes and a sub-nemesis named Carrigan (Johnny Whitworth*). The problem is, there's not enough of either to make the movie consistently nuttily, sluttily appealing. For every bug-eyed tantrum, there's a quiet scene of Blaze receiving communion; whenever Carrigan gets close to being interesting, he's either run over, thrown into something, or upstaged altogether by the movie's main heavy. Had the filmmakers gone bat-shit crazy with the story instead of investing in a low-rent Crow sequel,*** Spirit of Vengeance might have had a chance.
Instead, the movie stumbles and drags us through vague spirituality, secret cults, and demonic lore that pops up as cartoons narrated by Cage in one of the worst examples of shiny-objects syndrome I can recall. Worse yet, Marvel and company(ies) have opted to sell this thing as a 3D experience, which directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor absolutely fail to deliver. Their entire filmmaking philosophy involves buying cheap cameras that can be easily broken during their wild, practical stunts--meaning a lot of hand-held stuff and imagery of less-than-superior quality; imagine paying four bucks extra to watch Paranormal Activity in 3D, and you'll get the picture. The only thing that popped off the flat, washed-out screen was a single, subtitled sentence.
I began this review by suggesting that Ghost Rider doesn't need his own movie. I stand by that, to the extent that he would make a great cameo or ensemble player in a traditional comic-book movie. In order to sell him as a character worth watching for ninety minutes, he needs a writer, director, and studio willing to push his stories into horrific, fantastical territory. What would a Neil Gaiman Ghost Rider movie look like, I wonder? I wouldn't sell my soul to find out, but movies like this make me welcome potential offers.
*Who also stars in the recently reviewed Empire Records.
**You'll also get zero points for guessing that, since this is a superhero sequel, there'll be a scene where Blaze gives up his powers in order to lead a normal life--exactly five minutes before an unstoppable threat arrives, for which his powers would be perfectly suited in battle.
***Not to be confused with Drive Angry.