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‘Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance’ Is Not Very Good [Review]

Believe it or not, I had high expectations for Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance. Directors Brian Taylor and Mark Neveldine (Crank) making a Ghost Rider movie with Nicolas Cage at his most ridiculous is a combination that had a lot of potential to be great and completely over the top, which is exactly what I want out of Ghost Rider.

Unfortunately, that’s not exactly how it worked out. As fun as I’d hoped it would be, Spirit of Vengeance was just not very good. Spoilers follow.I think we can all agree that as a franchise, Ghost Rider is at its best when it embraces the craziness of the premise. This is, after all, the story of a carnival stunt rider who sells his soul to the devil and then turns into a skeleton that’s on fire wearing a leather jacket and driving around on a motorcycle that is also on fire so that he can punish the guilty by beating them with chains that are also on fire. Subtlety is not exactly the strong point here.

That’s one of the reasons why the recent Jason Aaron run on the comic was so good. It took the idea of a demon-possessed stunt biker as its baseline, and then built a world where everything around it had to be bigger, stranger and more extreme, with plot points that included an army of gun-toting nuns and a satanic 18-wheeler.

It also seemed like a good match for filmmakers Neveldine and Taylor, whose films Crank and Crank: High Voltage are easily (and unsurprisingly) two of my favorite movies of all time, for exactly the same reason: They’re based entirely on taking action movie elements like car chases and gunfights and doing them bigger and wilder than anyone else.

And yet, the one word that best describes Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance is “slow.”

 

In that respect, it’s the opposite of what I expected from the Cage (who, despite being in an awful lot of bad movies, is generally pretty entertaining), from Ghost Rider and most of all from Neveldine/Taylor. Those two guys built their name on a movie that was relentless about showing you something new and unexpected, to the point where it was actually about a guy who would die if things got too boring.

Spirit of Vengeance, on the other hand, is a pretty far cry from the Crank movies. It’s actually really reminiscent of Jonah Hex, another more disappointing movie from Neveldine/Taylor. It even has the same kind of animated intro sequence, and, unfortunately, the same boring treatment of stuff that, by all rights, should be really thrilling.

A few weeks ago on the How Did This Get Made podcast, Brian Taylor mentioned that the original script by David Goyer has been floating around Hollywood since the late ’90s — right around the time Goyer hit it big for Marvel with the first Blade movie — and that it went through rewrite after rewrite before it ended up with Neveldine/Taylor. That’s a bad sign right from the start, but you’d think that at some point in the revision process someone would come with a script that didn’t just stumble around from point to point.

The plot of this thing is about as thin as it gets:

1. The Devil needs a human body to go around making deals with people, like the one that turned Johnny Blaze into Ghost Rider.

2. Unfortunately, doing that burns through the frail mortal body he has inhabited and gives him Bell’s Palsy.

3. In order to get around this limitation, he knocks up beautiful Eastern European gun-runner moll Nadya (Violante Placido) because…

4. …when their half-demon kid turns 13, he can transfer his immortal soul into a sturdier vessel in a prophesized ritual that works out like a demonic Bar Mitzvah.

5. The kid just turned 13. Mazel Tov!

6. Now Ghost Rider has to stop the ritual, or else the apocalypse or something. I lost interest about this point.

7. There is a super-villain involved that is actually harder to watch and less interesting than Jigsaw and Loony Bin Jim from Punisher War Zone.

7. PS: Everything you know about Ghost Rider being possessed by a demon is wrong!

And that’s pretty much it, except that the kid is named “Danny” after the second Ghost Rider, Danny Ketch. This illustrates one of the major problems with just throwing in names to reference the comics without actually tying them into anything, because you’re me, you spend the entire movie hoping that you’re going to see this 13-year-old turn into a crazy little kid version of Ghost Rider. It doesn’t happen, and I ended up walking away from it way more disappointed than I would’ve been if they’d just named the kid “Scott” or something.

Also, the closest Danny comes is using his powers to put the demon Zarathos back into Blaze after he cures himself of being Ghost Rider through the classic Marvel problem-solving method of locking oneself in a room and sweating it out for a few hours.

This happens in the middle of the film, which means there’s a good stretch of the movie where Johnny Blaze is just Johnny Blaze, Guy Who Owns a Motorcycle, walking around without the super-powers that you know he’s going to get back at the climax of the movie. Because that’s what you really want to see, right? Ghost Rider not being Ghost Rider and just fighting dudes with guns like everyone else ever?

Beyond that pretty obvious problem, it really raises the question of why the bad guys are even able to kidnap Danny, since he already has the powers of the Devil, or Roarke, or Mephisto, or whatever Ultimate Demonic Force the bad guy is supposed to be. Since Danny was built to wield these powers, he also has none of the weaknesses of the Devil in human form, except the movie never allows him to do anything with this except give Ghost Rider his powers back. It doesn’t just open the door for massive plot holes in virtually every scene of this movie, it also a giant waste of an idea with a lot of potential.

And that seems to be a running theme in this movie. Another case in point: Idris Elba’s character, Moreau.

Elba’s a lot of fun in the role, but at the end of the day, he only has slightly more to do in this movie than Elba did as Heimdall, the Norse God of Standing Around And Looking At Stuff in Thor. He explains the plot, shoots a couple of dudes, and then dies at the end because, well, why not? He’s expendable from the first moment, and there’s never any doubt that that’s how it’s going to play out, because you never feel like you’re not watching a movie. There’s nothing to draw you in, or surprise you, or deviate from the standard formula they’ve selected to spend two hours playing with. Which just happens to be the formula from Superman II with a heavy metal makeover.

That said, there are a few places in the movie where Neveldine/Taylor’s signature style comes through. There’s a car chase right at the beginning that’s really fun, with a great use of Elba’s character and even a really well-done comedic payoff at the end of it.

Unfortunately, those shining moments are pretty brief, and more often than not the limitations of the film end up hampering its best ideas. Whenever the Ghost Rider uses a vehicle, for example, it turns into a crazy demonic hellfire version of itself, a cool concept with a lot of potential that never really pays off. Early on in the film Ghost Rider climbs into a gigantic piece of construction equipment, which sounds like a great setup for over-the-top craziness in hellfire heavy machinery. Instead, it falls flat thanks to a lot of lingering shots of a CGI Nicolas Cage sitting in the un-transformed cab of the crane and shoving levers. When the machinery comes back at the end, it’s still a truck that’s less demonic and more “red and on fire,” with the added bonus that it can drive itself while Ghost Rider is otherwise occupied.

Even the action scenes are dull, with a lot of Ghost Rider standing around and swaying like he’s at a rave that only he can hear. My guess is that he’s meant to be in a trance, but it doesn’t really make for exciting cinema, and when you throw in that his signature move in the film is the Penance Stare, which is represented at Ghost Rider standing there looking at somebody for a long few minutes, it doesn’t exactly make for exciting cinema. The only thing that really breaks it up is hearing Nicolas Cage, the Greatest Overactor of Our Time, occasionally hissing out a post-kill pun, and those are just the worst.

I will say that the last line of the movie is pretty great. If the rest of the movie had lived up to that moment, it also would’ve been great.

But it doesn’t, and there’s nothing to distract you from the gaping holes in the plot, and nothing that happens is any more exciting to watch than to hear about secondhand. Seriously, imagine Ghost Rider killing a bunch of dudes with a giant possessed piece of construction equipment that is on fire. I guarantee you that what’s going on in your head is better than what was actually on the screen. And if that’s the case, then there’s not really much of a point to watching it.

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