Remember that bit Eddie Murphy had in Raw about how venereal disease would only grow fiercer in the face of the latest treatments, to the extent where the symptom of a burning sensation experienced while peeing would soon manifest itself into the actual urination of flames? Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance embraces that image quite literally in its attempt to up the edge and humor of Johnny Blaze’s supernatural exploits after 2007’s criminally bland origin story, but directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor have nonetheless churned out an aggressively mediocre improvement on the first film that will also have the unlikely burden of remaining ranked behind Raw as far as on-screen depictions of fire-peeing are concerned.
An animated prologue reminds viewers that once-desperate daredevil Blaze (Nicolas Cage) made a pact with the Devil which results in his unwilling transformation into a chopper-riding, flame-wielding demon of the night whenever evil draws near. Now hiding out in Eastern Europe, where it’s cheaper to shoot superhero sequels, Blaze is approached by wino monk badass Moreau (Idris Elba, playing it Fronch) with a proposition: find an innocent boy (Fergus Riordan) that the Devil (Ciarán Hinds) intends to tap as his latest above-ground vessel in time for the nearing winter solstice, and I can help to remove your curse.
It’s your basic protect-the-kid plot, adhering strictly to the Terminator 2 blueprint (down to the protective mother, played by Violante Placido) and echoing that of Cage’s last 3-D supernatural-action February release, Drive Angry. Of course, the 3-D is only of any use whenever the camera stays still, but as with the previous helming efforts of Neveldine/Taylor (the more proudly provocative Crank 1 & 2 and Gamer), the action is often either jittery or roving, shot from behind with the swerving rhythm that comes from one filming on rollerblades, thus doing the format few favors. Their glib touches litter the screenplay (otherwise credited to Scott M. Gimple, Seth Hoffman and David S. Goyer), from quips about YouTube and the odd moment approximating a video game glitch to the aforementioned throwaway shot of Ghost Rider taking a flaming leak and nodding to the camera amid the unlikely inferno.
Reliably eccentric by this point in his career, Cage drops his jellybean-munching Elvis schtick from the first Ghost Rider but rarely ramps things up to match the consistently nonsensical directorial demeanor. The closest thing to a straight man around, Elba doles out exposition and gunfire dutifully, while Placido (The American) takes over for Eva Mendes in the eye-candy department. Johnny going the father-figure route means that we’re at least spared a requisite romantic subplot, and his rapport with Riordan is, well, fine. Rounding out the villain end of things are Johnny Whitworth as the poor man’s Matt Dillon, who turns albino avenger halfway through; an ink-faced Christopher Lambert; and Hinds, operating in what can only be called “Demented Grandpa” mode.
The flaming head effects have improved in the past four years (if you’re willing to split hairs on a charred skull, that is), and the film generally throttles forward from showdown to showdown, running twenty minutes shorter than its predecessor and all the better for it. Still, it’s not quite a good time at the movies, spastic to a fault. After two tries, I’m not sure what it would take to make a Ghost Rider outing that’s worth a damn. Maybe some comic-book heroes are simply better left on the page.