Silver Screen: Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance 1/2*
It's tempting to say Nicolas Cage has jumped the shark, but he's too weird for that. If you're Nicolas Cage, the shark jumps you. (Apologies to Yakov Smirnoff.)
Cage's profound weirdess has been his ace in the hole since his breakout performance in Peggy Sue Got Married. His strange line deliveries and odd, tic-riddled takes on characters (not to mention a taste for trashy material) have entangled him in some terrible projects, but those same qualities have also led him to give terrific, singular performances in some of the best movies of his time. Sometimes he's debatably over the top-- I dig him in Wild at Heart and The Rock, but your mileage may vary-- but it's hard to argue against his performances in Raising Arizona, Leaving Las Vegas, and Adaptation.
Sometime in the middle of the last decade, though, Cage seems to have disappeared into his own eccentricity. Since 2006's somber (and not very good) World Trade Center, even his prestige movies are oddball ventures steeped in violence (Kick-Ass, or Werner Herzog's inexplicable Bad Lieutenant sequel). With the exception of doing voicework in some particularly hard-to-watch kids movies (G-Force, Astro Boy), his ré sumé is a slush of B-grade genre pap (Next, Bangkok Dangerous, Knowing, Season of the Witch, Drive Angry).
Cage's attempt to redeem sloppily rendered adolescent fantasies by amping up the wattage on his bug-eyed performances has reached some kind of zenith/nadir with Ghost Rider: The Spirit of Vengeance, which must surely go down as one of the most indulgent movies of all time. The sequel to a not-much-loved, achingly bad (and itself rather improbable) first film feels like a manifestation of Cage's pure will to play the lead in comic-book movies no matter how ill-advised.
The original Ghost Rider was pure laziness, a limply rendered and poorly conceived adaptation of a C-list Marvel Comics character as imagined by Daredevil director Mark Steven Johnson. It was a cookie-cutter superhero-origin flick that only deviated from the template in order to be worse than the average production, from the wordless and utterly uninteresting lead rendered entirely by computers to a story that violated even the most basic storytelling logic.
To make the followup more distinctive, the producers brought on codirectors Mark Neveldine and Brian Tailor, who made a big splash with their hyperkinetic debut Crank. The writing and directing team, always credited as a single unit, Neveldine/Tailor, employ a frenetic editing style, constantly distracted narratives, and videogame aesthetics to make action movies stripped down of any pretension or unnecessary exposition. The trouble is, they also tend to strip them of any coherence, as seen in their last comic-book movie trainwreck, Jonah Hex, which was easily one of the worst movies of 2010.
They've topped/tunneled under that atrocity with Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, which consists of ninety-odd minutes of garish ridiculousness that lacks even the cheap thrills of exuberant frivolity.
As with Jonah Hex, the spare story is stitched together with a voiceover and some animated segments. In the case of Ghost Rider, ninety percent of the plot is delivered this way. We're reminded that stuntman Johnny Blaze (Cage) made a deal with the devil (Ciará n Hinds, replacing Peter Fonda), and thus becomes the harbinger of the demon spirit Ghost Rider, a black-clad skeleton driving a flaming motorcycle.
Following the events of the first film, Blaze flees to Eastern Europe to try to find a way to suppress the Ghost Rider. He's offered an opportunity to exorcise the demon by a gun-toting holy man (Idris Elba) who wants Blaze to help him protect a young boy (Fergus Riordan) chosen to be the vessel for the reincarnation of the Satan. Blaze must work with the kid's hot, heavily armed mother (Violante Placido) to defend the lil' devil against Hell's thugs as well as a group of monks (led by Highlander himself Christopher Lambert) who want to snuff him out to be on the safe side.
Once again, Ghost Rider’s superpowers are incredibly vaguely defined. He can do pretty much anything at will (suck your soul out through your eyes, blow you to ashes with his big chain, puke molten lava, turn heavy machinery into a Hell-powered buzzsaw) depending on the situation, and he's totally invulnerable except when he's really easy to put down with a few shots. Pretty much wordless and still rendered entirely by computers, he's not so much a character as a character design, and one that works a lot better on a smudgy tattoo than on the big screen.
Cage never even attempts to give his character any kind of center, just playing him as a bundle of twitches and quips. The last thing Cage needs is to be bigger, but that's what Neveldine/Tailor try to do, making the action even crazier with bizarre cutaways to Cage screaming his way toward blurry surrealistic transformations or Ghost Rider shooting flames from his crotch (an improbable trick for a skeleton, by the way). It's as though Cage's primary goal was to make the human incarnation of the character even weirder than the flaming-skeleton version. In that case, mission accomplished. In every other way, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance is an endurance test for even the most enthusiastic comic-book geek.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.