The 2007 film Ghost Rider had many of the elements necessary for crackerjack entertainment, or at least goofy, guilty fun: an iconic, morally conflicted Marvel Comics superhero inspired by the early-’70s popularity of Evel Knievel; narration by Sam Elliott; and a seemingly ideal leading man in famously comic-book-loving kook Nicolas Cage, one of the most entertaining crazy-persons in the entertainment business. Yet the best journeyman director Mark Steven Johnson (Daredevil, When In Rome) could manage was slick mediocrity. The 2011 sequel is even more promising in the abstract. Johnson has been replaced by the uneven but sometimes gloriously manic, awesomely over-the-top team of Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor (Crank, Gamer, Crank: High Voltage). David S. Goyer, a prolific screenwriter and genre vet with credits on all three Christopher Nolan Batman movies, provided the story and co-wrote the script. And the charismatic Idris Elba debuts in a key role as an alcoholic priest who recruits Cage’s unique services. Yet instead of elevating the franchise, Ghost Rider: Spirit Of Vengeance ends up squandering even more potential.
An alternately exhausted and twitchy Cage returns as a motorcycle-riding hotshot who sold his soul to the devil to save his cancer-stricken father decades ago, and is now cursed to change into a rage-filled monster with a flaming skull for a head in the presence of evil. Elba’s tortured priest offers to free Cage from his curse in exchange for tracking down a mysterious little boy (Fergus Riordan) with a dark history and emissaries from his Satanic old man (Ciarán Hinds) hot on his tail.
In spite of the series’ big budget, the hero in flaming-skull mode still resembles an unimaginative CGI version of something that might be found in a cheap haunted house. Even worse, the character is surprisingly colorless, whether Cage is playing him or he’s handed over to the CGI folks. That lack of personality afflicts this surprisingly generic film as a whole, which shouldn’t be a problem for a glorified B-movie about a flaming, demonic hero played by Nicolas Cage in a 3D sequel directed by Neveldine/Taylor.
In a distressing omen of what’s to come, the first big action setpiece finds Cage interminably standing in front of a group of interchangeable heavies, giving other henchmen more than enough time to grab more guns and/or get away. That irritating lingering may have its roots in the comic-book version’s “penance stare”—a power that forces bad guys to experience all the pain they’ve caused others—but onscreen, it just results in a disappointing protagonist who’s nowhere near as badass as he should be. The character is matched to a Cage performance that’s isn’t much fun; it plays like a limp retread of both his underwhelming turn in the first film, and the similar but much more enjoyable Drive Angry. At best, the Neveldine/Taylor team is capable of transforming ingeniously trashy premises into pop art, but here, they inherit a promisingly trashy franchise and fail to give it the allure and go-for-broke energy of superior trash.