2007’s Marvel Comics adaptation Ghost Rider was a terrible, terrible movie. In fact, it was so bad we named it the fourth-worst comic book movie of all time, and considering the Schumacher era of Batman films, Elektra, and The Fantastic Four, that’s really saying something. When I saw it, I wanted to burn the theater down with everyone in it, but I decided that the memory of seeing that film was a much crueler fate, and that those who paid money to see it should suffer an eternity of remembrance. When I found out that Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, the balls-out crazypants duo behind the Crank films were directing, I had some hope. These are men who know action, who know madness. I thought that, at the very least, it couldn’t possibly be worse than the original.
I… I was wrong.
Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance picks up some time after the conclusion of the original. The Rider’s human persona, Johnny Blaze (the ubiquitous Nicholas Cage) is traveling across Eastern Europe, living a life of solitude as he attempts to keep the demon inside him at bay. Meanwhile, the Devil (played by Ciarán Hinds), known as Roarke in his human form, seeks a young boy (Fergus Riordan) born out of a different devilish bargain who is destined to become his vessel so that he can, I assume, fill the multiplexes with more Ghost Rider movies so as to create Hell on Earth. I can think of no crueler punishment.
The story is nothing new — movies about the Devil seeking to return to the Earth are practically an annual event. Yet it’s executed here with such marvelous ineptitude that it deserves its own special recognition. Spirit of Vengeance is horrible, a bloated, dull gasbag of a film that fails in every conceivable fashion. The screenplay, drunkenly cobbled together by Scott M. Gimple, Seth Hoffman, and David S. Goyer is shamefully stupid, with a bland, derivative plot that never bothers to explore any of the characters with more than a cursory line of dialogue here or there. The story of the Ghost Rider is one that presents innumerable options for exploring the darker side of the human condition, and the comic has dealt with the nature of sin, with the blurred lines between good and evil, with the concepts of battling the monsters within you as an allegory for man’s own weaknesses. There’s none of that present here, except for a couple of scenes of Cage alternating between mumbling like a jolted coma patient, and making googly eyes like a glue-sniffer with a wicked case of the wiggins, as if those two divergent versions of a seizure are somehow emotionally resonant. Instead, the story is simply a chase across a dreary, barren landscape as Cage finds the boy, then loses him, then finds him, then loses him, et fucking cetera.
Yet even the dumbest of pictures can be elevated by either strong performances or solid action scenes, and sadly Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance offers neither. Cage backslides yet again, eroding more of what little goodwill he may have stockpiled with films like Adaptation, Wild At Heart or Leaving Las Vegas. Here, he’s in full-on Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call — New Orleans mode, like a shuddering, methed-up stunt biker who occasionally bursts into flames. His manic twitches and tics are inexplicable, as if to say that by simply blinking quickly or clenching and unclenching his jaw while babbling reallygoddamnfast and.. then… talking… really… slowly… he can somehow hold back a demon from hell. Yet even worse are his attempts at moments of gravity, which are dull enough to make minutes in a theater feel like hours being buried in mud. The film is suffocatingly boring whenever it slows down, and it slows down a lot. The rest of the cast acquits themselves no better. Violante Placido plays the boy’s mother, whose emotional range consists of crying or shouting. Hinds lacks any of the menace or charisma he’s shown in other, better efforts, as if he realized his mistake and decided to simply sneer his way through the film. Never has there been a less threatening portrayal of Lucifer, a drab, bothersome prick who grimaces and expects you to quiver in fear.
The film’s other villain is a smarmy, obnoxious arms dealer, played by Johnny Whitworth, who is eventually turned into a pasty-faced cretin who causes things to rot by touching them. Whitworth is less a deadly psychotic (or a villainous monster later on) and more a scowling, brainless bully, whose tepid attempts at one-liners would be more at home on a game show — an evil game show, albeit — than from a demonic antagonist. Even the wonderful Idris Elba stumbles and falls, playing a drunken French monk who rides a motorcycle and can shoot the wheels off of a truck while falling off a cliff (yes, really). I’ll give Elba credit for trying, but he’s given nothing useful to work with, and ultimately his character is just frustrating.
I said that films like these could be elevated by performances or solid action, and given Neveldine and Taylor’s penchant for ultra-violent hijinks, that could have been the film’s saving grace. And yet, even there they failed, because astonishingly, Ghost Rider: Spirit Of Vengeance is boring. It’s brutally dull, with exactly four action scenes, each lasting roughly seven minutes, and all of them edited to the point of incoherence. Even casting the epileptic editing aside, the action is unexciting and listless. One would expect that a duo such as this could use the opportunity to really take the chains off the character (no pun intended) and wreak utter havoc onscreen, but no. Instead they settle for winding chase scenes, fights on top of cars, and the Ghost Rider flinging his chains around and borrowing the incineration effects from “Buffy The Vampire Slayer.” I’ve no doubt that they challenged themselves in the filming of some of the stunts, but the finished product is completely lifeless. The only check mark I can give them is that they substantially improved the animation of the Ghost Rider’s flaming skull — except that he’s only in Ghost Rider mode for about 15 total minutes, perhaps the strangest gaffe of all.
I wish I could tell you that Ghost Rider: Spirit Of Vengeance is bad in a “so bad it’s good” kind of way. In good conscience, I cannot. It’s an affront to the property that it’s based on, a lurching, murmuring, brainless dummy of a movie that flunks not because it aims high and doesn’t make it, but because it aims low — and still misses the mark. It’s not funny in any sense, and Cage’s goofy shitnuttery doesn’t provide even a single moment of joy. It’s a drab, humorless, eye-rolling quagmire of a film, and when you really think about it, its greatest sin is also its most baffling question — how do you take a film with a title like Ghost Rider: Spirit Of Vengeance, and make it utterly boring? I simply do not know. All I know is that it’s to be avoided, and in my case, hopefully forgotten.