You can spot the central problem with Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance with that little "PG-13" rating in the corner. Few superheroes cry out for the "R" treatment more keenly, and after the dismal results of the first Ghost Rider movie, you'd expect the studio to seek out an edgier angle on the character. Why else would they hire Crank directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor: infamous for pushing the envelope past any and all limits? Why else would they include a trailer shot of the Rider pissing fiery urine or trumpet the ballsy camera work designed to bring a "bold new look” to the struggling Marvel franchise? Yet after doing all that, they apparently developed a serious case of cold feet: scaling back the grit for a more audience-friendly rating. One guess what happens.
Such timidity is only the beginning of Ghost Rider's problems, however. This film sucks on a level I can scarcely describe, even after enduring such horrific comic book adaptations as Batman and Robin and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. The storyline was apparently developed by a team of deranged howler monkeys. The visual palate resembles month-old urine stains. The action scenes are jittery and haphazard, and the spaces between them are filled with clichéd gibberish attempting vainly to explain what the hell is going on. One would think that a lower budget would deliver more creative freedom, but nothing here delivers the gonzo insanity they so fervently promised back at Comic Con.
The exception, of course, is Nicolas Cage – no stranger to scenery chewing – who delivers another over-the-top hamfest as possessed stunt rider Johnny Blaze. For reasons that never become clear, he finds himself in Romania, where the forces of Satan plan to abduct a young gypsy boy to serve as a vessel for their dread lord. A motorcycling French priest (Idris “I’m Way too Good for This” Elba) recruits the Rider to save the boy from the gaggle of demons and black-robed supplicants intent on engineering Armageddon.
The hackneyed cheesiness of the scenario could conceivably work to the film’s advantage… if the directors were so inclined to exploit it. The boy, for example, inexplicably speaks with an American accent and supporting figures include a bald Christopher Lambert with mystic writing all over his face. Think of the riffs they could deliver on that material: the in-your-face shock tactics that simultaneously embrace and deconstruct such absurdity. Instead, they opt for safety over recklessness, investing the drudgerous exposition with faux solemnity devoid of even the barest hints of a wink or a nod.
The action scenes, too, are inert as a concrete slab. The first time the Rider appears, we’re just about ready for some infernal chain flinging and bad guy pain. But instead of cutting loose, he stands there cocking his head back and forth like a confused parrot, draining the excitement from the scenario and leaving the audience tapping its feet with impatience. By the time the fireworks finally start, the film has lost us, and the by-the-numbers fight choreography compounds the boredom permanently.
The rest of the film rapidly sinks any remaining hopes. We spend so much time talking about the devil’s plans and rare bottles of wine that we forget to include anything interesting about Ghost Rider himself. You could plug any character into his role – wandering hitman, disgraced secret agent, time-travelling cowboy – and still have the same movie. He directors seem to feel that presenting the image of Ghost Rider is enough – and admittedly the effects here work pretty well. They just feel so ill-spent in a production that doesn’t give a solitary crap about anything else. This character had a chance to be distinctive: to branch the Marvel name out into a more adult subtext and expand people’s idea of what a superhero should be. Instead, Spirit of Vengeance delivers a soul-shattering turd fest: one of the worst comic book movie ever produced and a shameful low point in Marvel’s recent cinematic fortunes. We could have expected that from anyone. The fact that it comes from real iconoclasts makes its shameful incompetence all the tougher to swallow.