"I will eat your stinking soul!"
Stylistically and tonally different to its 2007 predecessor, 2012's Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance is presented as less of a sequel to Ghost Rider and more of a reimagining/reboot. Nicolas Cage is reportedly a huge fan of the Ghost Rider comics, and he wanted a second attempt at making a movie which does justice to the source material. Thus, Crank directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor were recruited to bring their frenetic style to the production. Theoretically, Neveldine/Taylor's style should be the perfect complement for Cage's over-the-top acting sensibilities, and the collaboration should have resulted in a deliriously enjoyable comic book flick. Instead, while it has a few semi-exciting action set-pieces, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance is a generic bore. It's a rabid movie, yet it's loud, obnoxious, drab and often startlingly incoherent.
To save his dying father, stunt biker Johnny Blaze (Cage) signed his soul over to the devil, and as a result was bequeathed with a supernatural curse which sporadically transforms him into a flaming skeleton. In order to keep his curse in check, Blaze chooses to hide out in Eastern Europe and live off the grid. Until, that is, he's tracked down by an old friend - alcoholic warrior priest Moreau (Elba) - who offers Blaze the opportunity to get his curse removed. Blaze's task is to protect a young boy named Danny (Riordan) who's on the run with his mother (Placido). As it turns out, Satan (Hinds) wants Danny, and has sent out several mercenaries to retrieve him.
While flimsy plotting is almost customary in action movies, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance is worse than most; its story is poorly-structured, and most narrative beats don't make much sense. Not to mention, for some reason the film leans hard on its hackneyed plot rather than cutting loose with feverish action, which completely kills all sense of momentum. Sure, screenwriters Scott M. Gimple, Seth Hoffman and David S. Goyer probably aspired to focus more on storytelling than mindless action, but the problem is that the storytelling is incompetent. Spirit of Vengeance is in sore need of humanity, as well. Great comic book films create genuine weight by concentrating on central characters and their arcs (see Sam Raimi's Spider-Man films), but the writers here were clueless about how to properly achieve this. It's clear that Danny was included to humanise Blaze, but the subplot fails to gain much traction. It doesn't help that all of the dialogue throughout is so painfully stiff and uninvolving. With the titular Rider receiving a scant 10 minutes of screen-time, Spirit of Vengeance mostly involves boring characters spouting boring dialogue.
To the credit of Neveldine and Taylor, the look of Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance is just right. Stripping away the glossy, overly Hollywood demeanour of the 2007 picture, this is a grittier film ostensibly aimed more at adults. Not to mention, the Ghost Rider character (which looked utterly cartoonish in the 2007 film) looks spot-on here with a black and charred skull. But this is about the only aspect where Spirit of Vengeance succeeds. Neveldine and Taylor retained their proclivity for batshit insane antics, but what's missing is the sense of energy that they brought to the Crank movies. Furthermore, as violent as the film sometimes is, it's clearly marred by the restrictions of its PG-13 rating. Neveldine and Taylor excel as directors of R-rated junk food, not neutered comic book movies. Some action beats do work, but the 5 minutes of worthwhile awesomeness does not make the film's other 85 tedious minutes worth enduring.
To keep budget costs down, Spirit of Vengeance was shot in drab locations in Eastern Europe. As a result, it looks ugly and cheap, more like a direct-to-DVD movie than a theatrical experience. And as fun as some parts can be, Neveldine and Taylor's efforts are incompetent at times. Take, for instance, a scene towards the beginning in which the Rider stares at a mercenary before eating his soul - Blaze stares at the guy for so long that it's unclear what's happening and it actually looks more like the two are about to kiss. In another scene, Blaze attempts to hold back his inner demon while riding his motorcycle. It's a scene which drags on and on, filled with shots that may look cool but fail to further the plot or develop the character in any worthwhile way. Also odd are the inconsistencies relating to the Rider's tolerance to injury. He's knocked unconscious by a grenade at one stage, but later on another grenade only causes him to spin horizontally while levitating in midair (a huge "WTF?!" moment). We never find out how the Rider can be killed, and this strips the film of emotional stakes.
As Johnny Blaze/Ghost Rider, Nicolas Cage clearly gave it his all; he chews the scenery with hammy gusto and endlessly mugs the camera. At times it works, but Cage's insanity is often more grating than entertaining. Idris Elba is the only acting bright spot here. Elba has genuine movie star charisma, and he seems to match the tone of the material. None of the other cast members merit a mention, though it's interesting to note that Highlander star Christopher Lambert has a minor role as a priest...and he's utterly wasted.
From the trailers, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance looked like it was going to be a fun movie, but it really isn't much fun at all. While there are a few nifty action beats here and there, they fail to compensate for the bland storytelling and woeful scriptwriting. It's a misguided, empty-headed mess which fast becomes a test of endurance. Maybe third time will be a charm for Ghost Rider...