For those special few who feel the need to “catch up” prior to watching the newest installment of the Ghost Rider series, I’m here to tell you something: don’t bother. If you’re confused as to why Nicholas Cage’s head catches on fire and he becomes a skull-man with a flaming chain whip and a badass demon motorcycle, then you’re in good company because the lead character isn’t sure what’s going on either. This movie is less about who Johnny Blaze is, but rather a story in which Johnny Blaze does some stuff. And if your quality lens is set to SyFy channel original movie mode, or Highlander sequel mode, then you will likely leave this 90 minute chase-sequence unscathed, un-offended, and maybe smiling in spite of yourself.
Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance is of course based on the Marvel Comics series of the same name, although the movie exists under the “Marvel Knights” banner. The supposed purpose of this distinction is to let viewers know that while this is a Marvel property, you’re watching a situation outside the prescribed boundaries of the regular continuity or expectations. One can see why the current Marvel film execs would want to disassociate Johnny Blaze (Nicholas Cage) from the Avengers film continuity, X-Men: First Class or the forthcoming Spider-Man reboot. In short, Ghost Rider is a C-squad Marvel character and not cool enough to play with the flashier guys.
Some of the reason for that is because Johnny Blaze is more hardcore than some of his Marvel cronies; his universe acknowledges the Devil as an actual character while Captain America’s universe couldn’t even choke out the word “Nazi.” In a voice-over (there’s several of these) Cage says, “Why does the devil walk on Earth? I dunno.” This about sums up the internal logic (don’t bother applying external logic) of the entire film. The Ghost Rider is doing stuff in the movie because the movie is called Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance. He says and does weird shit because Nicholas Cage is in the movie. Can he control the Ghost Rider? No. Well, kind of. Well, it depends on what each of the scenes needs to do. Hey, where did they get that giant truck? Did they steal it? Shhhh, don’t ask too many question or the Ghost Rider will suck out your soul.
The plot? In brief, Johnny Blaze is tasked with bringing a child to some monks in order to prevent the child from having the Devil’s soul transferred into him. A drunken Frenchman named Moreau (Idris Elba) promises him that the monks can remove Johnny’s curse if he brings the child, Danny (Fergus Riordan), safely to the monks and out of the hands of the Devil and the Devil’s goons. You know what sort of film you’re getting into when text on the screen simply reads “Eastern Europe” without really telling you exactly where everything is taking place. After Johnny Blaze has an initial encounter with Danny and his mother Nadya (Violante Pacido) the movie becomes a sort of chase sequence. The bad guys have Danny and are taking him to the Devil, so Johnny and Nadya pursue them.
Most of the film then takes place out on the open road with very few people around, which is handy when fracases involving missile launchers and flaming-demon chains ensue. My favorite aspect of these fights is when the Ghost Rider’s flaming skull gets sort of “turned off” and it’s just emitting black smoke, like he’s out of demonic batteries or something. One bullet won’t turn off the flaming skull action, but a missile might dial it back for a little while.
Eventually Johnny and Nadya do get Danny back and meet up with Moreau. They all hightail it to the secret monk hideaway (which is luckily in driving distance) where they are confronted with the main-monk, played by Christopher Lambert.
This to me is a bit of meta casting, insofar as the presence of Christopher Lambert confirms a movie as an unnecessary and terrible sequel, of which Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance is certainly among. Nicholas Cage gazes at Christopher Lambert in this scene with a kind of reverence, a look that seems to say, “Yes, we are all hacks and totally fine with it.” Just as Cage is doing his Cage-thing, Lambert gets to do his Lambert thing complete with lines which seem to be lifted from other Christopher Lambert movies. Cage asking “What are you going to do?” is followed by Lambert saying, “What will be done.” Which translates to: the monks are actually going to kill the kid because it’s not worth it to try to save his soul. Somewhere in this process Johnny Blaze is relieved of his Ghost Rider curse, which is annoying because now they’re in a position where they might need it. Just before the monks tried to kill Danny, the Devils goons come and snatch him up. So now it’s back to the open road.
The devil is throwing a sort of party for all of his followers in the next sequence, and everyone is gathering in a Raiders of the Lost Ark-style open air amphitheatre to witness the soul-transferring action. This location is also within driving distance of the monks’s hangout, so luckily Johnny, Nayda and Moreau get there pretty fast. You can predict what happens next, but in case you want to know, the Ghost Rider totally comes back and shows everyone who’s boss. Luckily, a bunch of people get in cars again before the movie ends, so the movie can once again make sure the majority of the lives of these characters are spent driving. Maybe this makes the Ghost Rider series a cathartic experience for people with really crummy, long commutes.
Johnny Blaze beats the Devil by sending him back to hell, which causes Cage to exclaim “Hell, yes.” This, other than the line in which he says “So you’re the devil’s baby mama,” is the best part of the movie. With a central conflict almost exactly like Ghostbusters 2, and absurd dialogue delivered as only Cage can, the only thing to save the soul of Ghost Rider: Spirit Vengeance would be the action sequences. But these are mostly predictable and repetitive. Does that mean this movie is awful? Yes! Hell, yes. But it wasn’t remotely boring, and I smiled every time Nicholas Cage spoke.
And really, what more could one expect? However, I would recommend any further sequels be straight to DVD, or at least, bring Christopher Lambert back for maximum kitsch value.
Ryan Britt is the staff writer for Tor.com.