I understand several things. I understand Nicolas Cage likes to phone it in. I understand that guerilla filmmaking duo Mark Neveldine/Brian Taylor are by no means auteurs. I understand that they’re probably proud of that. And I understand that Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance is no masterwork.
If only through virtue of comparison, the polished mediocrity of Johnson’s Ghost Rider helps this half-sequel stand tall. That ‘half’ is important because Spirit of Vengeance largely fails at being a sequel. Its story is, smartly, at a bare minimum: Satan’s imbued a part of his soul in a young boy in preparation to leave his aging corporeal form behind. An exiled Johnny Blaze is commissioned to rescue the boy in the hopes that he can finally rid himself of his curse. You could enter at the 45 minute mark and pick up on everything in two sentences. ‘That’s the mother of the child vessel. She agreed to give birth to Satan’s child in exchange for saving her life.’ Details are sparse, but this mostly improves on its predecessor’s failures from sheer unpredictability. We’re never sure if we’re getting a rocket launcher stakeout, a feigned exorcism, or a highway chase. Actually, we get all of those at some point, but the wrote qualities of Johnson’s vastly inferior first entry receive one bony middle finger and rarely return.
Neveldine/Taylor’s obvious gift here is their visual flare, and they have almost too much to give. The Rider himself looks fantastic — his skull no longer rivals early 90s PC shooter graphics and when fully transformed, Johnny Blaze’s leather jacket is coated with char, grime, and hellish debris. Everything he touches is also imbued with a molten glow, from his bike to a truck to a bat shittingly insane construction yard battle. This aims to give us a flaming-skulled, fire-pissing avenger. And it fully commits.
Johnny Blaze is also no longer a lover, since when one’s soul is owned by a demon, having a relationship might be a tad awkward. A surrogate father-son dyanmic between Blaze and the young boy stand in its place, and most of these moments are filler at best, very dumb at worst — a heart-to-heart on the back of a speeding tow truck is stupid from any angle. Johnny Blaze’s relationship with his psychotic alter-ego is much more Bruce Banner/Hulk this time. Not only does he struggle with controlling and even liking his curse, but he ultimately doesn’t want it. I won’t defend Armond White’s overreading of the flash and poor writing, but there is a thematic undercurrent in Spirit of Vengeance. I know, I know. This taps into the delusions our desires create, albeit in the loosest of senses. But regardless of whether we look to Blaze’s realization of his place in the world or to a henchman’s giddiness at newly-obtained powers of decay, it’s there. Just barely.
As for Cage’s second go-around, his portrayal is uneven, which makes for a perplexing product. At times, he’s hilarious or unhinged, but he also feigns interest in a character that stands as the actor’s swan song for helming a more marketable comic franchise. Bad dialogue provides avenues for hilarious line readings like “You’re the devil’s baby mama,” but Cage’s pre-FX footage takes the cake this time. Whereas a stunt double took over the action in the 2007 entry, Nic Cage insisted on doing everything himself this time sporting black contacts, white face paint and even LED lights to get in… character?
There’s little nutritional value here, but Marvel C-listers like Ghost Rider occupy the lower shelves of the food pyramid already. Gorge away.
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