Despite generally being perceived as a failure, 2007's Ghost Rider actually did decent enough business at the box office – enough to green-light a slightly cheaper (estimated at around $75 million) sequel and guarantee the return of star Cage.
Admittedly, Cage has been spreading himself thin lately in a series of poor action and genre films. The first Ghost Rider, directed by Mark Steven Johnson, was a glossy, big budget affair that had about as much darkness as a licensed pinball machine. Cage was frankly too old for the part of stunt rider Johnny Blaze, the rider himself was an all CG creation. It didn't really satisfy anyone and sits among the second tier of Marvel films along with the equally unloved Daredevil (also directed by Johnson).
Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance has been widely touted as a reboot of the franchise, promising a darker edgier rider than last time. The film has new writers (including Goyer, who has writing credits on the Blade franchise and Batman Begins) and new directors in Neveldine and Taylor. It's also in 3D. The promise of a more sinister Ghost Rider directed by the team responsible for the manic Crank movies is appealing. Neveldine and Taylor's unique selling point is their hyper-kinetic handheld camerawork and willingness to mix up and pastiche different styles and genres. So giving them a reasonable budget, a star with a reputation for "large" performances and a character untroubled by the petty limitations of physics ought to make for a turbo-charged blast of adrenaline.
At the start of the new film, we join Blaze in Eastern Europe at a later stage in his life. The effect of living with a demonic entity inside him has left him teetering on the brink of madness. The devil is again walking the Earth in the form of Rourke (Hinds) chasing a young boy for clearly nefarious purposes. Rourke has come into conflict with a group of monks, who are also trying to find the child. However the boy's maybe-Romany maybe-prostitute mother Nadya (the film never settles on either) has other ideas and she and her son are running from both parties.
Renegade monk Moreau (Elba) recruits Blaze to help the child on the promise that he can restore his soul and break the Rider's curse. Rourke has enlisted Nadya's ex Corrigan to track the child for him. This is the setup for a fast pace chase film blasting across some interesting locations in Eastern Europe and Turkey.
Spirit of Vengeance is a very loud, very flashy film which ultimately ends up burning out its clutch and grinding metal very early on. The chief problems are a hackneyed and dull story (it's The Golden Child all over again) and a witless script (one nice Twinky gag is not enough). Half the dialogue is unintelligible (although this may be a fault of the cinema in which I saw it), and the characters are not interesting.
Newcomer Roirdon is particularly badly served as the kid everyone is chasing. There is cursory attempt to make him a Terminator 2 style wiseass street kid, but otherwise the character is paper thin. An odd diner scene in which Blaze tries to stroke his hair, before claiming he had a "bee" in it (a weird line which has been widely interpreted as some kind of nod to Cage's notorious Wicker Man performance) comes over as creepy in a bad way. I guarantee that you won't care what happens to him. Elba is good, but his character is ill defined, why does he have weird eyes? You will expect some supernatural explanation, but nothing ever comes of it. And then there is Cage himself.
Cage seems to have become a standing joke online, with many clip videos available of his most bizarre actorly tics (including one entirely comprised of bits from The Wicker Man). This is a shame, as he is still one of the most unique and individual of Hollywood stars. And he is still capable of going genuinely out on a limb as in Werner Herzog's deranged remake of Bad Lieutenant, a performance that laughs in the face of ridicule. However his mad work ethic has seen him do far too many B movies requiring a Nic Cage type. Audiences have Cage fatigue.
Cage actually attempts to do something interesting here. For the first time, thanks to the wonders of motion capture, he is playing the Rider as well as Blaze. Cage works hard to give the wordless Rider a physical presence, employing a range of animalistic body movements that suggest a volatile predator. At the same time his Blaze is a weary, worn out character reaching the end of his sanity. Cage fans will get to see the actor let loose a little more than you might expect in a big budget picture. But the material lets him down. As neither Blaze or the Rider are very interesting, we don't care about his internal dilemmas.
Neveldine and Taylor do make the film look good, and mount all sorts of camera craziness. However, fans of Crank will have seen it all before. What is quite astonishing is that given they were shooting a film intended to be released in 3D with their reputation for camera madness, the directors seem to have absolutely no clue what to do with it. Almost nothing is permitted to crack the plane of the screen. There is no reason whatsoever to pay the 3D premium for this effort – it's not that it's bad, it's non-existent!
About the only thing I can wholeheartedly recommend is the film's effects work. The CGI flames are fantastic. If CGI flames are your thing, then this is the film for you.
Ultimately this is a big, noisy, empty vacuum of a film. The Ghost Rider rides again, but I'll bet this is a swansong.