Directed by Mark Neveldine from a story by David Goyer (of Blade, Batman Begins and FlashForward fame), Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance is by no means a great film. In fact, it’s rather woefully put together in some ways, and if you’re not a fan of Nicolas Cage I’d skip it altogether, since this is definitely one of his more idiosyncratic performances. But compared to his earlier turn as the skull-faced superhero in 2007, Spirit of Vengeance is a masterpiece.
Cage returns as Johnny Blaze, a former daredevil motorcyclist who sold his soul to the Devil, and is now doomed to transform into the titular demon whenever bad guys are around. On the bum in Eastern Europe, Blaze becomes the (reluctant) guardian angel of a young boy and his mother after being offered a chance to be freed of his curse in exchange for protecting them.
Let’s start with what works. First off, the filmmakers get the tone right this time around. Unlike its often jarringly goofy and light-hearted predecessor, SoV is a darker take on the material, and the change is overwhelmingly for the better. There’s still plenty of humor, of both the intentional and presumably unintentional variety (one scene in particular, featuring Cage at his hammiest as he terrorizes a hapless goon, had the audience at the Rave falling out of their seats), but overall this one is much edgier.
Johnny’s characterization has been much improved as well. Whereas the first film’s version of Blaze seemed to have things pretty well in hand by the time the credits rolled, Johnny 2.0 is a brooding, isolated figure struggling to control his alter ego and desperately searching for a cure, like a supernatural update on The Incredible Hulk.
Finally, the title character himself cuts a much more impressive figure in his second big-screen outing. The first film’s visual effects were underwhelming at best and downright laughable at worst; the transformation sequences were dismal, and the finished product looked like something out of an old Looney Tunes short. In contrast, the Rider looks downright menacing here, with scorched bones, flames that produce actual smoke, and grimy black duds that remind me of Jason in the old Friday the 13th movies. More than anything, he looks like he’s actually there, and that makes all the difference.
The film has its weaknesses, don’t get me wrong. None of the characters besides Blaze are especially well-developed, the villains are one-dimensional mustache twirlers, and the editing during some of the action sequences is confusing and leaves much to be desired. Some of the transitions between scenes are a bit jarring as well. My biggest problem with the film, however, is with the 3-D presentation.
Now, I need to make a confession: this is the first 3-D film I’ve actually seen. So there may be some kind of a learning curve involved, or the conditions at the theater where I saw it may not have been ideal (I was sitting awfully close to the screen, for instance, and I’ve heard the effect works better if you’re sitting somewhere near the middle). Maybe, as a friend of mine suggested after the screening, this particular film simply doesn’t benefit from the process as much as other films would. But, personally, I found the 3-D aspect of the viewing to be distracting and even borderline irritating at times.
First, the glasses. I was aware of the fact that I was wearing them the entire time, and I was constantly aware of the black bars around the perimeter of my vision (especially since I was sitting so close to the screen, which made me have to move my eyes back and forth much more than I’m used to in order to follow the action). Second, while the 3-D looked cool in a few places, it mostly amounted to people standing around on screen and me thinking, “Well, they certainly stand out more against the background than they usually would.” Not nearly cool enough to balance out the inconveniences involved, in other words.
All in all, however, I had a good time watching this film, and it was miles better than the original (for my take on that one, by the way, check out my blog, which is linked on my Contributor page). I give it two-and-a-half out of four flaming skullheads (C+).