For a Marvel Comics fan Ghost Rider Spirit of Vengeance is a visual dream come true, truly bringing the popular anti-hero to life from ink and paper origins. The film is another one of those cases where style wins out over substance and though that’s not always such a bad thing injecting a little substance into the material might have made this film work. I kinda liked the first Ghost Rider, directed by Mark Steven Johnson. “Kinda”, in the fact that I wasn’t really expecting much. My expectations were so low that when I saw the final product I was surprised that a lot of that film worked more than it didn’t.
Johnson’s take on Ghost Rider was a little too nice. If it weren’t for star Nicolas Cage’s manic performance as the Rider’s alter ego Johnny Blaze, the film would have been a complete failure. Such a dark and tainted character needed a gritty and dirtier story where he’d be allowed to really cut loose. Directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor demonstrated a knack for gritty material with their 2006 feature Crank and its sequel Crank 2: High Voltage. Those were a pair of films that often felt like the action/comedy equivalent of a bad acid trip. Their third and perhaps best film, Gamer, did not feature such a frantic and kinetic pace, as it told the story of human avatars fighting in real-life video game style situations for their freedom. It’s ultra-violence, strong performances and attention to detail was the kind of flavor the Ghost Rider series needed. The downside is that Marvel Studios is in the business of making money and they’ve assigned Neveldine/Taylor to work within the confines of PG-13 material because it’s been deemed more profitable rather than giving them the free reign that comes with a hard R-rating. The last time they did that was for not one, but two films based on The Punisher. We all know how that turned out.
Neither a sequel nor a stand alone film, Ghost Rider: SOV sets up the back-story of Johnny Blaze and how he lost his soul in a deal with the devil through the use of a spry and rather clever animation sequence. Cage returns as Blaze, doing what he does best and that is playing yet another tortured soul. Struggling with the curse of being the Rider, Blaze has retreated to a remote part of Eastern Europe before answering that call of duty every hero hears in an adventure story. The call comes in the form of Idris Elba as a holy man, seeking the Rider’s power to save young boy Fergus Riordan from being possessed by the Devil played by familiar baddie Ciaran Hinds. Satan needs a young human form to walk the Earth with full use of his power, so he made a deal with the boy’s gypsy mother Violante Placido years earlier to take possession of her son on his upcoming birthday. Just like Blaze, Placido realized she made a mistake out of desperation and has gone on the run with her child with former gun-running boyfriend and Satanic lackey Johnny Whitworth in pursuit.
Spirit of Vengeance in essence is a series of confrontations between the Rider and Witworth and his cronies out in the desert. Neveldine/Taylor’s trademark kinetic camera style has been muted, but not by much. They demonstrate camera tricks that are at times impressive and others pretty amateurish. In one scene it looks like they intentionally drop the camera during a crane shot, just to make the image interesting. At least I didn’t feel like I needed a dose of Dramamine like I do during one of those Crank films. What’s also impressive is the visual effect of the Rider himself. He doesn’t look like the type of CG effect you might find in a video game as he did in the first film – he looks like a flesh and blood person. Actually, the Rider is more leather, bone and flame than flesh and blood, but his image feels strikingly real. You can see incredible textures and imperfections on the bone of his skull, the charred leather of his jacket bubbles and boils from the heat and the flame emanating from his body looks authentic giving off a realistic heat haze. The visual f/x actually hold up when the character stands outside under the white hot sun. Even the chain the Rider uses as a weapon glows red and heats up like real iron would.
There’s a little bit of Cage’s personality and even his voice to be found within the Rider this time, but they don’t make the mistake of making him goofy. In fact, the Rider appropriately comes across as one serious disturbed individual with a bit of an attention span problem. In one scene, the Rider appears to be having a private moment to himself while adversaries stand around waiting to see what he’ll do next.
There’s a strong “wow” factor whenever the Rider takes action, destroying his enemies with the flick of his wrist to which that deadly chain is attached. Action sequences at an abandoned plant and on a deadly road feature the kind of imagery you might find in a good graphic novel. The boy fantasizing about what the Rider would look like pissing flame is a fantastic image and great piece of art unto itself. Sadly, it doesn’t get any better than that. When you really think about, who cares about this story to stop the Devil from possessing this young boy? As the boy’s mother, Placido gives a rather blank and vapid performance, so any ideas of her becoming a love interest for Cage is out. There’s an attempt to establish Blaze as a father figure for the boy, but it feels cheap and generic. After one sequence where Cage lets Riordan ride with him on his chopper as he pops a few wheelies, we’re supposed to believe they’re now best buds?
An iconic character like the Rider doesn’t get the antagonists he deserves either. Peter Fonda projected true evil and an almost regal form of sleaze in the first film that Ciaran Hinds desperately lacks here. His Satan just feels like a tired old man who decided to take this role during a layover in Romanian. We never see him project any strength or wield any true power since his character is supposedly growing weaker in his current form. Whitworth plays one of those annoying pretty-boy thugs you just wish would get killed or go away. Over the course of the story, Satan re-invents him with super-human strength and the power to make everything he touches decay, yet he still isn’t an adversary worthy of the Rider. In his new albino form Whitworth looks more like one of the Nelson twins in desperate need of a record contract.
There’s a barely recognizable Christopher Lambert as a monk with his own agenda in this film, but I’m not going to say much about him. The former international star of the Highlander films appears as if he was tricked into shaving his head and having elaborate glyphs tattooed on his face just for a throwaway role. The only actors trying to make the most out of the material are Elba and Cage. The latter is believable as a man struggling the control the dark power within him, yet at the same time relieved when its finally released. One interesting sequence does reveal the back-story of the demon Blaze has within him, but I don’t think Marvel Comics fans will appreciate that the origin of Zarathos has been retconned for this story.
As for Elba, he believably plays an intelligent and noble character, making a good foil for Cage. The filmmakers for some strange reason don’t appear to have faith in the acclaimed actor’s abilities because they’ve made him don a set of ridiculous contact lenses. The two actors only seem to come alive when they’re around each other, but Elba’s role in the film ultimately takes a familiar path. There’s one moment where as he and Cage take one last swig from a vintage bottle of wine he gives his co-star a look like, “Well, I’m the black dude in an action movie, and you know what that means.”
In the end Ghost Rider: SOV is a miss, but not a complete one. The visual style and essence of the Ghost Rider character has been brought to life onscreen like never before. The 3D is an added bonus, making this one of the few comic book movies that works well in the process even though it wasn’t necessary. It’s just that the Rider deserves a real story and I’m pretty sure there are plenty of fans out there that could come up with something better than what they did here.