In 2007’s Ghost Rider, daredevil turned supernatural hero Johnny Blaze (Nicolas Cage) says “I’m the only one who can walk in both worlds.” I still have absolutely no idea what he meant by that, but I’m gonna steal the line anyway, and say that this new sorta-sequel-but-also-sorta-reboot Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance does indeed walk in two worlds – the world of “good-bad movies” and the world of “bad-bad movies.” The important question is how much time it spends in each.

Obviously, there’s a important difference between “good-bad” and “bad-bad.” You’d think a movie where the undeniable all-time king of “good-bad”, Nicolas Cage, plays a flaming-skull vigilante would instantly qualify as the former, but director Mark Steven Johnson’s original 2007 snooze-fest proved otherwise. The problem with that film was Cage seemed to be the only one clued in to the inherent goofy silliness and insanity of the Ghost Rider character. The film was a piss-poor attempt to dump the Rider into a fairly by-the-numbers superhero movie. Cage was certainly game to go further, and whatever small joys that film contained came from his usual ridiculousness, but overall it failed to capitalize on its own potential.

But bad-bad movies aren’t always unsuccessful movies, and Ghost Rider was somehow a big enough hit to justify a follow-up. This time, those in charge have clearly decided to follow Cage’s lead and at least strive for pure madness, which explains the decision to hand the reins over to film-making duo Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, the guys behind Crank and Gamer. In case you couldn’t tell from those movies, these guys aren’t exactly known for their superb story-telling skills. Instead, with their odd camera angles, extreme stunts and general we-don’t-care-if-this-makes-sense-as-long-as-it’s-cool attitude, they represent the height of “holy shit,” in-your-face filmmaking mayhem. And let’s face it – Ghost Rider is sort of the ultimate style over substance superhero (he’s a decent enough character, but you’d be hard-pressed to point to the definitive Ghost Rider story; about 80% of his popularity has always been based on how cool he looks). So teaming Neveldine/Taylor  with Nicolas Cage for a Ghost Rider movies seems on paper like the ultimate match made in cheesy-fun heaven.

In Spirit of Vengeance, an undisclosed amount of time has passed since Johnny Blaze first made his deal with the devil, which left him cursed with being the human host of Zarathos, the titular justice-dispelling demon. Blaze really isn’t doing very well, and has taken to hiding out in an abandoned, dilapidated warehouse in the mountains of Eastern Europe. Since a whole movie just watching him lay around and feel sorry for himself would be pretty boring, he is instead found by Moreau, a French, wine-obsessed warrior monk (don’t ask) played by Idris Elba. Moreau has a deal for Blaze – help him and his monk buddies protect a young boy named Danny (Fergus Riordan) from the very same devil that once cursed him (here called “Roarke” and played by Ciaran Hinds, taking over for the first film’s Peter Fonda), and they will sever Blaze’s connection with Zarathos, freeing him of his torment.

It sounds like a pretty good deal…though Moreau conveniently leaves out a little tidbit that Danny is in fact the devil’s son, and the whole reason he is being chased is that Roarke needs him for an upcoming ceremony in which he intends to transfer his being into the boy. You got that? Eh, it doesn’t really matter. Just know this – the movie is essentially an over-caffeinated mash-up of Terminator 2 and The Road Warrior, with Blaze, Moreau, Danny and Danny’s hot mom (Violante Placido) hitting the road and trying to avoid capture from Roarke and his hand-picked sidekick, Blackout, a greaseball weapons dealer turned supernatural psycho with the ability to instantly decay anything he touches (personally, I think this character, as played by Johnny Whitmore, is actually a tad more entertaining before he gains his powers, though there is a great joke involving his abilities and a twinkie that almost single-handily justifies his appearing in the film).

Now, as you might expect from a Ghost Rider sequel starring Nicolas Cage, there is a lot of really dumb stuff in this movie. Even though the plot is pretty simplistic, it still finds ways to occasionally trip over itself – for instance, there’s a scene where Roarke casts a spell on Danny that is supposed to make the Rider unable to sense him, but not 15 minutes later we clearly see the Rider do just that! The Rider’s powers are also somewhat ill-defined – he is momentarily stunned from a missile blast at one early point in the film, only to later completely shrug off a series of even more powerful missiles (I actually attempted to rationalize this one to a friend of mine in the theater parking lot after seeing the film, hypothesizing that perhaps the Rider is like the Borg, and a certain kind of attack can only work on him once. That’s a good enough explanation for me, but why the hell am I doing the screenwriter’s job for him?).

But, you know, a lot of these problems have to do with “logic,” and what the hell am I doing looking for that in Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance anyway? The more important issue is whether or not there’s enough good (or at least so-ridiculously-stupid-that-it-becomes-good) here for it be worth your time. I think so. For one thing, the Rider looks a lot more bad-ass this time, thanks to a much improved visual design and the fact that Cage was actually able to perform the Rider in motion-capture (as opposed to the fully CG Rider of the previous film). In true Cage fashion, he decided to get super-weird about it and channel the spirit of an Afro-Caribbean voodoo ghost or something while doing it. Well, whatever the hell he was doing, it worked – the Rider moves with a spooky, reptilian gait, and is generally much more interesting to watch this time around.

Meanwhile, along with Cage’s usual trademark nonsense (and yes, at one point he does go full Bad Lieutenant style, in arguably the film’s best moment), Idris Elba also seems to get the film’s warped sense-of-humor and similarly dives right in. I love when actors more known for their intense gravitas get to cut loose in stuff like this (like Bill Nighy and Michael Sheen in the Underworld films) – you can always tell they’re having a ball playing around in an arena they don’t get to visit very often. Elba is a lot of fun here, and almost makes up for how unmemorable both Danny and his hot mom are (though I did appreciate that the movie never even hints at any sort of romance between Blaze and the mother, which is quite refreshing from a studio film).

The big question, though, is whether or not the movie is as bat-shit insane as you would expect and hope it to be, considering the talent behind the camera. The answer is a bit of yes and no. The movie’s first half is pretty unhinged, barely taking any time to breath in-between one odd scene and performance to the next. Quick nonsensical cut-away gags and laughably inexplicable sequences are the name of the game during this section of the film (consider a moment where the Rider suddenly begins floating and spinning around in circles after being shot at, for no discernible reason!), and as someone who came into this movie wanting an experience on par with Crank‘s “what the hell is going on” chaos, I was ready to declare Spirit of Vengeance something of a minor masterpiece in brilliant stupidity during these early scenes, even before they get to the already infamous “pissing fire” moment from the teaser trailer.

To quote Johnny Blaze, "well, that happened."

Unfortunately, though, that level of craziness doesn’t really maintain itself throughout the film. The film’s second half (and final act in particular) are noticeably more straight-forward and formulaic, with both Cage and the directors toning it down and delivering a more standard supernatural action piece. I suppose you could argue this  is somewhat appropriate tonally, giving the increased dramatic stakes of what’s going on near the end. But who cares? I came to watch Nicolas Cage make funny faces and Neveldine/Taylor make a case that they’re too insane to be put in charge of such a big production. Safe and expected is not what I’m here for. Thankfully, the film does lead to a fairly strong final action set piece that ends the movie on a somewhat high note (and it’s certainly the first car chase I’ve ever seen where Satan was driving one of the cars), but still, you can’t help but wish the whole movie had stayed as wacky as the first half.

There is no part of my brain that will allow me to logically argue that this is a “good” movie. And yet, I’m also not gonna lie and say I wasn’t entertained almost the entire way through. It’s sort of like how I still really enjoy Taco Bell even though I’ve also had better and much more authentic Mexican food. Sometimes you just crave a certain sort of trash, you know? Not even superhero film has to be Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight, and there’s something admirable about a film like Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, that is fully aware of what it is  – a glorified B-movie starring a B or even C level comic book character – and is not at all ashamed to just go for it. So, no, it’s not technically a “good” movie, but I also don’t think it’s so bad that it deserves the massive derision that has so far met it in most reviews. It’s definitely a big improvement on the first film, and while it misses out on being the instant stupid-fun classic you would expect Neveldine/Taylor to deliver with this subject matter, it gets close on enough occasions that I have to give it credit. I paid $5 for a matinee showing, and eventually I’ll end up buying it used from a video store (and yes, I will watch it again and enjoy it). Given how many shitty comic-book movies I instantly forget and/or never want to see again (like the first Ghost Rider, for instance), that’s not too shabby of an accomplishment.

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P.S. The filmmakers missed a glorious opportunity for a fun little comic-book nerd Easter egg in this one. Throughout the entire film, we never learn the last name of either Danny or his mother. If I had been allowed a pass at the screenplay, I would have included one final exchange between Blaze and Danny at the end. Something along the lines of:

Danny: “Goodbye, Mr. Blaze. Will we ever see you again? You can look us up if you ever come back this way.”

Johnny Blaze: “You know, I don’t even know your last name.”

Danny: “Ketch. My last name is Ketch.”

Johnny: (Waits a beat) “Yeah, I think we might be seeing each other again.” (Rides off)

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