Johnny Blaze is the Ghost Rider, a former stuntman who is sometimes possessed by a vengeful spirit. When this happens, he changes into the Ghost Rider, and exerts violent judgment over anyone who commits evil deeds. Johnny is sought out by the monk Moreau who is trying to protect the boy Danny and his mother from the grip of the devil. Danny is gifted with supernatural powers, and would be the perfect vessel for the devil to walk the earth. Moreau asks Johnny for his help, and offers his help in return to rid him from his curse. Soon after, the devil manifests itself in this world in human form. Together with his henchmen he tries to snatch Danny from the protection of the Johnny Blaze, and a vicious cat-and-mouse game ensues.
This really reads like a fairly bad story, I have to admit. And I remember that Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance was slammed hard by critics when it came out. Because of the story, but also because Nicolas Cage was putting on another loony performance, the CGI effects were looking too cheesy etc. I went to the cinema to see it, had a great time, and wondered why it was so hated upon.
As a brief excursion, let’s compare Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance to the Marvel movie Thor that came out in the same year, and which was rather well received by critics. It was one of the early movies set in the official Marvel Cinematic Universe, in which everything that happens in one movie is fully canonical with all other movies. These movies were produced directly by Marvel, and are typically crafted so that they appeal to the largest possible audience. That means no scary stuff, no overly psychotic bad guys, smooth action scenes that are fully composed of CGI, a lot of focus on interpersonal drama, and only pretty people in it. While these ingredients have led to much commercial success, it also makes them very formulaic and difficult to become enthusiastic about.
While I can see why there is an audience for such an arguably sober approach to comic book adaptations, I fail to understand why there is a general consensus among movie critics that this is how these movies should be made. I will make the claim that we can’t fully escape our biological programming, so there’s nothing wrong with occasionally enjoying a movie that appeals to the lower instincts. And Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance is all about serving the lower instincts, at least as far as a PG-13 rating permits. In that sense, it stands diametrically opposed to the likes of Thor and Iron Man. The previous Ghost Rider attempt (Spirit of Vengeance is a sequel to it) had a lot of the characteristics of the slick Marvel movies, but was a somewhat slow-paced and uninspired affair for my taste. There’s also nothing plot-wise that connect the two movies, so I would recommend to skip the first movie.
Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance was directed by Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, who earned a reputation with the Crank movies for their high-octane, relentless action sequences that utilized lots of crazy camera perspectives. Their success with the Crank series did not go unnoticed, and so they went one level up at least budget-wise with Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance. And the action scenes do indeed bear some of their trademarks with the camera moving all the time when there’s some action, and shots from interesting angles occasionally being inserted. There is a bunch of CGI in the movie, first and foremost the burning skull of Johnny Blaze, which looks wacky and creepy at the same time. But there are still plenty of old-school shootouts, car chases and explosions. Some scenes have a truly unique look, which is also due to the filming locations. Parts of the movie were shot in Turkey in a region with amazingly white limestone mountains, and bizarre peaking rock structures. This makes for a magnificent, and also slightly eerie and desolate background for the scenes that were shot outdoors.
The plot consists almost exclusively of the bad guy team chasing the good guy team, and vice versa, after Roarke has kidnapped the boy. Simple setup, but it never gets boring. If there’s no violence, then we get to see Nicolas Cage and Cilian Hinds put on extremely expressive facial gestures when they’re angry (which they’re a lot). When the Rider takes over and Johnny’s head becomes the burning skull, his facial expressions become more limited, but funnily enough are still fairly Nicolas Cage-like. Fortunately, the movie does take itself not too seriously, tongue-in-cheek-humor is abundant. Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance also scores some extra points casting genre veteran Christopher Lambert in the role of slightly deranged but righteous monk Methodius.
Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance is saved from its generic premise by a creepy and weird atmosphere, decent and occasionally original action scenes, and the wacky performances of the main protagonists. It’s certainly one of the most eccentric manifestations of the Marvel universe on screen, and for me one of the most likable.