Comic book adaptation Ghost Rider (2007) was one of the last pre-Iron Man superhero movies, taking a second-string Marvel character and casting world famous comic book geek Nicolas Cage in the role. It was directed by Mark Steven Johnson, whose 2003 Marvel adaptation Daredevil had struggled to win favour with audiences and critics, and was generally regarded as a disappointment. It is hard to keep a wannabe franchise down, however, and four years later Cage was back in the less costly, less ambitious self-contained sequel Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance. Directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor had ably demonstrated in their 2006 debut Crank that they were able to draw a chaotic blend of action and comedy out of the most ridiculous of premises. A demonic motorcyclist with a flaming skull for a head seemed a good fit for them.
It is sad that both the critical and commercial response to Spirit of Vengeance were even worse than its predecessor, because in pretty much every key respect it is a better film. It is not a great movie, but while it lacks the grandeur and the scale of other more successful superhero properties it also lacks any sense of pomposity or self-importance. This is capes-via-cult, a gleeful combination of handheld photography, simply developed story, and entertaining actors letting themselves relax. This is uncomplicated lightweight entertainment, designed to be watched, enjoyed, and then largely forgotten. It is self-contained – there is no need to watch Johnson’s lesser effort first – and does not try to foreshadow any sequels or spin-offs.
Cage’s performance sits at the broader end of his milieu, and this time around the film takes a motion capture of his performance as the titular rider. That makes a tremendous difference: in the original film the Ghost Rider is a rudimentary visual effects. Here it feels more like a character: more interesting, and way funnier to watch. Other key actors, including Idris Elba, Ciarán Hinds, and Christopher Lambert, pitch their performances exactly where they need to be. It’s no great insight to note the influence of Sam Raimi on the film’s look, pace, and texture, but it is a pretty accurate method of pinpointing its general style. Juvenile lead Fergus Riordan delivers a solid turn as potential antichrist Danny Ketch, as does Violente Placido as his runaway mother Nadya – pretty much the only woman in the film, sadly.
The plot is a bit of Biblically-inspired nonsense, but the action is regularly well-presented and inventive. The Ghost Rider has the supernatural ability to transforms anything it rides into a flame-drenched mechanical nightmare – usually a motorcycle or a car. In Spirit of Vengeance‘s most inspired moment, it drives a 12,000 tonne bucket-wheel excavator. It is clever – and cleverly ridiculous – moments like this that make Spirit of Vengeance a gleeful pleasure. It is knowingly dumb, and its story shoots straight as an arrow. It even finds time among the chaos to give Johnny Blaze (Cage) some actual depth and character development.
A year later Iron Man heralded the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and upped the ante of what an audience expected from a Marvel film. There have been plenty of great superhero movies since then, but I cannot deny that on one level something feels lost. We simply don’t get something this to-the-point and shameless from the genre any more. Sometimes it’s okay for a film to jump in, entertain, and jump out again. Sometimes you just want to watch a skeleton on fire beat the crap out of some people.