Johnny Blaze/Ghost Rider has always been one of those Marvel characters that’s doomed to sulk at the bar whilst more mainstream heroes like Spider-Man and the Avengers go out and snag the larger fan base (and bigger box office dollars). The main problem is that Johnny’s never going to be cooler — or more interesting — than the way he looks. He’s an artist’s favorite, with his almost grotesquely organic-looking motorcycle, his flaming skull head and his chains that he works with the finesse and showmanship of a rodeo cowboy. He’s a great “photo op,” but as an actual character, he doesn’t make a lot of sense — and few writers have ever been able to match the dark grandeur and mystique that various artists have brought to him over the years.
Ghost Rider’s inherently aggressive (and potentially terrifying) physical appearance and sure-why-not? origin story makes him an ideal subject for the batshit-crazy cinematic stylings of Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor (or Neveldine/Taylor, as they credit themselves), the mad-dog moviemaking duo behind the super-charged and downright insane Crank movies. The Rider’s woe-is-me, Phantom of the Opera-type theatrics also makes him an ideal character for Nicolas Cage‘s unique brand of, well, Nicolas Cage-ness, an acting style that requires one to be hopped up and bug-eyed at least 90% of the time. Put Cage, the Crank fellas and Johnny Blaze into a blender and you should get some kind of kind of bizarre, frazzled yet oddly glorious ultra-mess — and perhaps the only way with which to truly showcase such a weirdo anti-hero/whatever.
The theory is sound, the actual results are (perhaps inevitably) somewhat uneven, but Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance is definitely on fire.
Johnny Blaze (Cage) is a daredevil motorcyclist who sold his soul to the Devil to save his father’s life and is now cursed to transform into a demonic avenger with a flaming skull head whenever the need arises. Without Eva Mendes to distract him and Sam Elliott to mentor him this time around, he’s living in isolation and self-loathing in a garage in the middle of nowhere — that is, until he’s recruited by a hard-drinking French priest who might be more than he appears to be (Idris Elba) to save a young boy (Fergus Riordan) from the clutches of his father, who happens to be Satan himself (Ciaran Hinds), a well-dressed, ever-scowling gent who needs the kid to complete his plan to destroy the world (or something). Blaze teams up with the priest and the boy’s mother (Violante Placido), finding that a man who sold his soul to the Devil has a lot in common with the woman who slept with him (“We’ve both got to work on our decision-making,” Blaze mutters during one of his few calm and contemplative moments).
From there, the Rider takes on Ray Carrigan (Johnny Whitworth), the villain assigned to snag the kid for Satan (and who fans know will later turn into the demonic Blackout), and a variety of other supernatural-types, setting the stage for the kind of crudely creative, feverishly inspired action sequences that you’ve come to expect from the Crank boys. The movie truly works best when it’s being as loud and chaotic as possible, ignoring the plot (such as it is) and just letting Cage/Johnny wreak havoc, lassoing dudes with his chains and slamming them into the sides of mountains and throwing them off cliffs or just screaming in their faces with his burning visage. Cage is, not surprisingly, a force to be reckoned with here; he and Neveldine/Taylor are probably the only people on the planet who actually wanted a Ghost Rider sequel, and the film pulsates with a kind of brazen, inside-joke sense of personal victory — how often do Hollywood comic book geeks get $75 million to do whatever the hell they want with such a (relatively) C-level character?
Ultimately, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance makes for an appropriate companion piece to Cage’s other recent supernatural grindhouse flick, Drive Angry. Both films could be criticized for perhaps “trying too hard” and not every over-the-top flourish hits the bull’s-eye, but they’re completely dedicated to their cuckoo premises and wild aesthetics. They definitely earn points for sheer filmmaking bravado — and, indeed, Spirit.