Five minutes into “Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance” (2011), it’s clear that this is a better movie than “Ghost Rider” (2007). A great car-and-motorcycle chase through the hills of Eastern Europe (where the film is shot) ends with Moreau (Idris Elba, doing a Marvel twofer that year with “Thor”) flying through the air over the side of a cliff, but delivering bullets to the enemy’s tires while falling to his apparent demise.
A voiceover and montage soon recounts Johnny Blaze/Ghost Rider’s (Nicolas Cage) origin story in more coherent fashion than the whole original film, and we’re off and running with a superior sequel. Granted, that’s a pretty low bar to clear, and when launching into apologetics for this film, I find myself saying “But at least …” a lot. As in: “But at least I don’t have to sit through the first one again.”
This is a faithfully rough-and-tumble “Ghost Rider” movie rather than a slick cartoon. The almost sepia-toned Eastern European settings look great, from quarries to old castles, and even the visage of the fiery-skulled Ghost Rider (one of the things the original did well) is improved, as he’s more soot-stained.
Although Ghost Rider’s origin story is tidy enough (he gets tricked by the Devil into selling his soul), Johnny’s motivations, often inexplicable in the original, continue to be hard to grasp. At the end of the first film, he announces he wants to be Ghost Rider, refusing to give the power back to Mephistopheles (Peter Fonda). In the sequel, he’s holed up in a ruined hovel, wishing he could get rid of the power. Moreau will help him with a ceremony to dump the powers, but in exchange, he needs Johnny’s help in protecting a mother and son – Nadya (Violante Placido) and Danny (Fergus Riordan).
Roarke (Ciaran Hinds) wants them, because Danny is also Roarke’s son and heir. Roarke is the same person as Mephistopheles, as we see in flashbacks that place Hinds in the scene of the Devil’s bargain with Johnny. No explanation is given for the name or appearance change, but I suppose the Devil goes by many names and faces, and all that. “Spirit of Vengeance” also serves up a decent on-the-ground villain in the form of Ray Carrigan (Johnny Whitworth), who has the cool power to make whatever he touches decay into dust.
Directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor and writers Scott M. Gimple (“The Walking Dead”), Seth Hoffman and David S. Goyer (the “Dark Knight” trilogy) think they are making a cooler movie than they are. Many shots linger on Ghost Rider too long, as if showing off the special effect. A conversation between Roarke and Carrigan breaks into split screen with partial-overlap wipes that suggest someone is playing with new software. And when Carrigan uses his decaying power, we see it play out against a black backdrop before we cut back to the actual setting. None of those things make the film better.
There is some grindhouse-lite fun to be had. Cage unleashes his inner Cage in an interrogation scene where Johnny threatens to let the Ghost Rider out on Roarke’s henchman. “Spirit of Vengeance” clarifies that Ghost Rider feeds on bad people’s souls, so he’s often “hungry” in this movie. The idea of judging people for being “guilty” or “innocent” has been dropped. I guess he did some of that between movies and got burned out (pun intended). It’s also clear that he can control his transformation, although not easily; it’s not contingent on whether the sun is up.
Also peppering in a “Terminator 2”-lite surrogate-father-son relationship between Johnny and Danny, “Spirit of Vengeance,” well, has some spirit to it. While the narrative makes little sense, Johnny is a more three-dimensional character. It’s definitely a good thing that the “Ghost Rider” rights reverted to Marvel Studios so the Rider could be incorporated into “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” (and his solo series, slated for 2020). But at least Cage and company made one “Ghost Rider” film that’s not completely lifeless.