Latest Marvel movie doesn’t have a ‘ghost” of a chance

Bill Thomas, Arts & Entertainment Editor

Directed by the filmmaking brain-trust of Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor – the same anarchic duo responsible for the “Crank” franchise – “Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance” hopes to rescue the Marvel-licensed property from cinematic perdition. Sure, this sequel is miles ahead of its predecessor, but what we’re left with is still a one-way ticket to Dullsville, which not even cameos from Christoper Lambert and Anthony Head can redeem.

Barely supported by the thinnest storyline this side of porno, “Spirit” reintroduces us to Johnny Blaze (Nicholas Cage, looking dopey and bewildered as ever, like he still hasn’t figured out what actors do). Mostly ignoring the tone and plot of the first film, Blaze – host to the soul-sucking, sinner-scorching, antiheroic demon-entity known as the Ghost Rider – is now a bitter, self-pitying hermit who’s opted for a solitary existence in Eastern Europe (?!) in an attempt to snuff the hellfire inside him.

Alas, Blaze’s bid for isolation is undone when he’s enlisted to keep a child with mysterious powers (Fergus Riordan, slightly less irritating than most child actors) out of the clutches of no less vile a villain than the Devil himself (a scenery-chomping Ciaran Hinds). Along for the ride is eyeliner-abusing love interest Nadya (the pretty/vacant Violante Placido) and wisecracking black sidekick Moreau (Idris Elba, slumming big-time).

Can Blaze and the Rider learn to co-exist? Why exactly is the Devil after some snot-nosed brat? How does Nicholas Cage keep getting work? These are the questions “Spirit” dares us to ask, unaware that the answer to the first two is “Nobody cares,” while the answer to the last one is “Nobody knows.” Meanwhile, more interesting questions, such as those investigating the blurry line between vengeance and justice or touching upon the subtly sympathetic quality of Hinds’ Devil, are left unexplored.

Admittedly, Neveldine and Taylor are good at crafting powerful visuals with dizzying energy, even if the imagery doesn’t always gel with what’s happening on-screen. Likewise, the animated opening credit sequence is stark and vibrant. Too bad Cage’s obnoxious expository voiceover robs it of its luster. Ditto the fact that a couple similar sequences jarringly weasel their way into the picture at random intervals, seemingly a byproduct of post-production studio meddling.

Still, David Sardy’s industrial-metal score is suitably apocalyptic, with an aggressive, infectious pulse. And, a pleasant surprise given the darker bent of this sequel, “Spirit’s” occasional dips into absurd humor are modestly charming. The film’s sole major success, though, is its portrayal of the otherworldly Rider.

Gone is the previous movie’s stepped-off-the-front-of-an-Iron-Maiden-shirt cartoonishness, replaced by a Rider who is truly infernal. All twitching, snarling viciousness and laconic fury, this Rider is an imposing, occasionally unsettling presence, a horror-genre Terminator of burning bone, sizzling leather and flailing chains. It’s telling that every scene in which this computer-generated creation isn’t on-screen, out-acting his human counterparts no less, is a total bore.

In the end, “Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance” wants to be hell on wheels, but it’s a lot closer to being just plain hellish.

2.5 stars out of 5