A Ghost Rider film directed by the lunatics who gave us the Crank movies promises grindhouse greatness. Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, who always bill themselves as “Neveldine/Taylor,” exploded the action genre with Crank and Crank: High Voltage, and the pair of films shake out as merrily absurdist guilty pleasures. But they were also rated R, and Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance — the second film featuring Johnny Blaze (Nicolas Cage), who turns into a motorcycle-riding demon with a flaming skull for a head — slinks into theaters with a family-friendly PG-13. Here and there the filmmakers sneak in something prankishly daft — like a shot of Ghost Rider pissing fire, which Neveldine/Taylor apparently enjoyed so much it’s repeated. But this isn’t nearly the Ghost Rider trash masterpiece I’d expected from these guys. It’s fitfully diverting, and sort of just there.
Nicolas Cage does his bit, continuing to channel the gonzo spirit of legendary cult actor Timothy Carey. In an interrogation scene, Cage’s Johnny grabs hold of some scruffy lowlife and demands answers, assuring the scum that he’s trying real hard to hold down the demon who wants to bust out and torch the dude’s face. Cage hams it up hardcore there, but he understands that there’s really only one way you can play a guy whose head turns into a flaming skull. In another scene, we get to watch him transform, and Cage plays it as a king-hell nihilistic wa-hoooo epiphany. Johnny hates laboring under the curse that makes him Ghost Rider, but the change itself seems to unleash his id in a way that eluded both Hulk films. In these scenes, it feels as though we’re watching an actor (and noted comic-book fan, which is why Cage has done two of these) having a ball turning into a cool visual. It’d be nice if Cage could kick some of his paycheck for this film towards Gary Friedrich, who created Ghost Rider for Marvel Comics, tried to sue them for a share of the profits from the movies, and has now ended up owing the conglomerate $17,000.
Lamentably, there’s not much to Ghost Rider but the cool visual. His quest here is to rescue a boy from the devil, the same devil who cursed Johnny. This amounts to a lot of running from place to place in “Eastern Europe,” with occasional pauses so that Ghost Rider can break out his flaming chain and turn various gun-toting nobodies into cinders. The main villain, aside from the devil, is a mercenary trying to kidnap the boy; the devil turns him into a creature who can decay anything with his touch. In a reasonable joke, we see this creature going through various foods — an apple, etc. — which decay instantly in his hand, and then settling on a Twinkie, which refuses to decay. I also laughed at a quick bit involving an upside-down Idris Elba, who plays some sort of ass-kicking member of a religious order tasked to protect the boy. Every time we see him, he’s swigging some booze or another; when he shares a bottle of vintage wine with Johnny, our hero takes a pull and mutters, “That’d taste good on a salad.”
Like the earlier Ghost Rider (2007), this one would be happier with no expectations whatsoever attached — you’d probably want to land on it randomly on TV on a slow Sunday afternoon. Visually it has considerably more oomph than its bland Mark Steven Johnson-directed predecessor, but if you decide to sit out its 3D theatrical engagement you will be missing, I promise you, very little. Like many another recent 3D presentation, it was not shot in 3D but converted later, unlike Cage’s previous mean-motorscooter epic last year, Drive Angry. (Ghost Rider is, I guess, Drive Angrier.) All things being equal, I would rather have seen Crank 3D. That would have been insane and excessive and probably banned in several counties across America. What we have here — well, it’d taste good on a salad.