No movie that casts Ciarán Hinds as The Devil can be all bad, and in Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, the Irish actor brings his usual brooding charisma to the role of the ultimate villain, and it makes for a nice contrast to the wild-eyed histrionics of Nicolas Cage, here reprising his role as Johnny Blaze, the titular biker with a flaming skull (one of the more unlikely super/anti-heroes in the Marvel canon). That’s the good news.
The bad news is that this sequel, which wants to wow us with its unrestrained, hyper-stylized, WTF-ness, is way too disposable for its own good. Let’s not even worry too much about the plot, which is some kind of cross between The Golden Child and Every Other Horror Movie Ever Made (Satan has fathered a child; he wants to transfer himself into this healthier, younger vessel; a renegade monk played by Idris Elba enlists a reluctant Blaze’s help in protecting the child from this demonic parent; much screaming ensues; yada yada). No, the real tragedy of Spirit of Vengeance is that it has all the pieces in place for total zonked-out craziness, but stops short.
The first Ghost Rider film lucked into a kind of ironic charm; too silly to work as a serious superhero movie (whatever that may mean), it caught Cage right at the moment when he was shedding his A-List persona and fully embracing his status as loony cult figure. The new film, to its credit, doesn’t make even a halfhearted attempt at respectability. While the original was directed by anonymous journeyman Mark Steven Johnson (who gave us the instantly forgettable Daredevil and later, um, When in Rome), this new one is helmed by Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, the deranged visionaries behind the nutty Crank movies, a series whose unchecked visual sense and sonic playfulness had kind of a coked-out magnificence.
You’d think that the combination of Cage, Neveldine/Taylor, a Marvel-sized budget, and a strong supporting cast (including, alongside Hinds, a very welcome Christopher Lambert) would result in something special, but sadly, the directors are mostly in service mode here: They certainly fancy up the proceedings with their brand of unmotivated camerawork and in-your-face editing choices, and even toss in some animated bits early on, but for the most part, they stick to the thoroughly generic storyline outlined above. The Crank films are a maze of almost Dickensian distractions and digressions, but Spirit of Vengeance is so focused and, as a result, so impoverished that you actually feel bad for Cage. The actor tries to bring the weird (though at this point one wonders if he can even do anything else) but the film more often than not leaves him high and dry, saddling him with standard-issue action hero lines and boilerplate action set-pieces.
Neveldine/Taylor have never been known for their flair for performance, but ironically enough, it’s when the action stops and the actors take center stage that the film comes close to shining. Hinds can do grim and playful at the same time; he gives Satan some gravitas even as he winks at us. He also brings the best out of Cage, and you want to see more of them snarling at each other. The result is a sad, final irony: This most knowing of comic book movie franchises doesn’t go far enough, and you leave the theater wondering if it maybe should have pulled back all the way and just let its actors have the day.