Welcome to Monday Morning Review, a new feature here at Movies.com where we provide a review of a film the Monday morning after it arrives in theaters. As such, this review is written for people who have seen the film, and will discuss plot points, spoilers, etc, so read it only if you've seen it or if you don't mind knowing everything that happens.
My favorite part of Ghost Rider Spirit of Vengeance wasn't an action scene or even a wacky line reading from Nicolas Cage; it was the scene where Moureau (Idris Elba) gives Johnny Blaze holy communion in an attempt to relieve Blaze from the Satanic curse of the Ghost Rider. It was the only moment with an idea that hadn't been done before in a superhero movie, and it acknowledged that if the movie were to treat the Christian Devil as real, then it would also have to treat Christ as real. For about thirty seconds the movie felt bold, and the scene is sold by the actors as the only genuine interaction between the two characters in a movie that isn't interested in characters in the least.
Because what Ghost Rider Spirit of Vengeance really is is a cynical way for Sony to hold on to a character without relinquishing the rights to Marvel/Disney. Right now, through previous deals, the studio is sitting on Spider-Man and Ghost Rider, and as long as they can prove the properties are being put to good use in films, then they retain the rights. Spider-Man is a cash cow for Sony, so they've invested more care in his upcoming reboot The Amazing Spider-Man. I have no reason to believe they comprehend the appeal of Ghost Rider at all, pinning his tidy box office take in 2007 on the star power of Nicolas Cage and the Marvel brand name, and not on the character himself. It's evidenced by the way Ghost Rider Spirit of Vengeance is handled that they simply don't care.
There's no reason in 2012 for a high-profile studio film under the Marvel banner to feel like a low-rent direct-to-video sequel. Almost from the start, with its vague, Eastern European setting, tone deaf expositional voice-over (accompanied by piss-poor animated frames), and cookie cutter "point A to point B" plotting, you know you're in for a cheap ride. One friend on Twitter was worried about spoilers from folks who had seen the film by Friday afternoon, but for something to have spoilers, that means it has to have surprises. There aren't any here.
Well, maybe that's only half true -- there are certainly no narrative surprises. What is surprising is that Neveldine and Taylor can't settle on a tone that works. I can tolerate Crank as a movie right on the cusp of where I draw the line between trash and entertainment, and Gamer is vile, but they've been consistently loopy as a pair of directors. Sure, Ghost Rider SOV is nutty at times, but it also wants to be deadly serious too. The resulting effect is like reading a home-made comic book from a kid in junior high, inspired by the worst of the Ghost Rider comics from the 1990's. It's in your face with how cool it wants to be, and jarring with how amateur it actually is. In an attempt to make a legit studio film, they've revealed themselves as no more talented than any straight-to-video workhorses. Whether they wear roller blades when they shoot is irrelevant. A custom dolly rig never told a good story, and that's their job.
The only upside to Ghost Rider SOV over the original film is that I can actually tell you what happens in it. I wouldn't jump to any conclusions that it means this is much better than the first one; it's bad too, only bad in different ways. Whereas Mark Steven Johnson's film was glossy, consistently idiotic, and sporting a story that made no sense at all; Neveldine and Taylor's is drab, tonally all over the map, and tells a story that is uninspired to the point that you could close your eyes after the pre-credits action sequence and chart out the whole thing in your head with pin-point accuracy. It's comparing rotten apples to rotten oranges.
It's another career black eye for Nicolas Cage, who, frankly, doesn't need another. His performance encapsulates what's wrong with his public persona -- he's too old for the part, he treats dialogue like an experimental process part of the time, and he mocaps the Ghost Rider like Frankenstein playing a Muppet, with a lumbering monster walk and a wide-open Muppet mouth for a smile. It's a rudderless Cage relying on instincts that have continually let him down for the past five years with directors who defer to those insticts over tone. There's no place for ironic love in movie stardom. If someone is a movie star, you want to see them perform based on that star power; nobody watches Brad Pitt ironically. Yet, here's the place Cage finds himself in in 2012 -- he's half-man, half-internet meme. The fact that there may be no turning back for Cage, that the audience already sees him as a bit of a joke, is maddening. If anything, Ghost Rider SOV should make you feel sad. If you call it a guilty pleasure at all, you're right -- you should feel guilty. There's no reason to celebrate such a dimwitted comic book film, and there's no good reason to laugh at watching one of the most unique actors of our time continue to make a sad joke out of his career.