The concept of “ironic detachment” has, perhaps, ruined bad movies forever. Because now we not only have “bad” movies, we also have “so bad they’re good” movies, and whether or not that distinction even matters has become a topic of ongoing debate. But I’m not even here to talk about those kinds of films. I’m here to talk about one of those films that doesn’t fit in either category, but one that still doesn’t technically qualify as “good.”
I’m here to talk about GHOST RIDER: SPIRIT OF VENGEANCE, a film that is simply weird as hell and makes no apologies. In an era when homogenization seems to be affecting the entire superhero genre – when Warner Bros., Marvel Studios and 20th Century Fox all seem to have their own “house styles” and all of their filmmakers have to more-or-less tow the line – films like GHOST RIDER: SPIRIT OF VENGEANCE are a genuine novelty, because going this far outside of the box is a really hard sell.
Sadly, of course, it’s a hard sell because films like GHOST RIDER: SPIRIT OF VENGEANCE tanked at the box office. But this was probably always going to happen. This movie is a heavy metal album cover brought to life, and most people wouldn’t choose to live in a heavy metal album cover if they had the opportunity. Even visiting one seems like a pretty dicy idea. So this particular power fantasy was not for everybody.
Then again, the expression “not for everybody” isn’t really an insult. It’s actually the start of a recommendation. Practically every cult movie you’ve ever fallen in love with could be described as “not for everybody,” couldn’t it? And that’s GHOST RIDER: SPIRIT OF VENGEANCE too, except that it doesn’t have its own cult. Not yet.
And that’s what I’m here to talk about.
I freaking love GHOST RIDER: SPIRIT OF VENGEANCE, a nightmare-guzzling adrenaline engine of macho supernatural madness from the directing team of Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor – credited here as Neveldine/Taylor – whose films I sometimes like (CRANK, GAMER) and sometimes loathe (CRANK 2: HIGH VOLTAGE). Either way their ethos behind the camera generally boils down to “Let’s fuck shit up,” and when applied to the right story it’s a thrilling way to make movie… for better and worse.
Let’s start with Ghost Rider himself, the title character, who in the comics sometimes fails to make a lick of sense. The GHOST RIDER comics were (usually) the story of Johnny Blaze, a motorcycle daredevil who made a deal with the devil to save the life of his father. The deal backfires, his father dies anyway, and now Johnny Blaze is sharing a body with the Spirit of Vengeance, who stops bad guys and… wait, why would the devil even want that?
It’s a concept that doesn’t work on multiple levels, especially under close scrutiny, so unlike the original GHOST RIDER movie, SPIRIT OF VENGEANCE tries turn the absence of rationality into a mission statement. Now Johnny Blaze made a deal with the devil because he’s the kind of person who would risk his life to entertain a crowd of drunks. “Let’s just say good judgment wasn’t exactly my forte,” he confesses.
Unlike the first film, GHOST RIDER: SPIRIT OF VENGEANCE plays the whole “sharing your body with a demon” thing as an actual curse, as in, something that really, really sucks for Johnny Blaze. The Rider devours sinful souls, but we learn here that The Rider has ridiculous standards. We like to think that he’d only send murderers and monsters to eternal torment, but in SPIRIT OF VENGEANCE apparently he’ll damn you to Hell for an illegal download.
So that sucks, and Johnny Blaze is trying to live as reclusively as possible until an alcoholic played by Idris Elba as a sex machine with a hilarious French accent tracks him down. It turns out the cybermonks that this guy works for have found the Antichrist, but they lost him in an action sequence so nuts that Neveldine/Taylor shot it while being dragged behind a car on rollerblades. So now it’s up to Ghost Rider to do it, and in return he’ll get his curse lifted.
What follows is a whole bunch of badass nonsense, so let’s burn through it quick. Nicolas Cage bonds with the Antichrist over the fact that the Ghost Rider’s penis is a flamethrower.The devil uploads curses into a child’s brain over a cell phone. A villain gets a superpower that makes him incapable of eating anything but Twinkies. Christopher Lambert uses his own face as a Post-It note. Hell bullets get puked. Hell itself gets puked. Giant construction equipment gets supercharged until it becomes infernal torture devices of mass destruction. And so on.
And it’s all matched rather perfectly by one of the all-time great Nicolas Cage performances. Cage has referred to his particularly operatic acting style as “Nouveau Shamanic,” and on the rare occasions when this approach actually matches the material it’s a wonder to behold: The yuppie going mad from loneliness in VAMPIRE’S KISS, the alcoholic burning out as fast as he can in LEAVING LAS VEGAS, the cop who sucks down drugs like they were oxygen in THE BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS…
And in GHOST RIDER: SPIRIT OF VENGEANCE, it fits because he’s playing a man who is literally trying to keep his body from exploding, every second of every day. Hearing Cage scream “HE’S SCRAPING AT THE DOOR” precedes a manic scene in which he drives off into the night, screaming, snorting flames out of his nose, his eyeballs receding into his face as The Ghost Rider forces his way into our world. It’s an insane performance, but one that makes sense: having to live with this crap would drive you pretty batty too.
Yes, it’s all very hard to take seriously. I’m not arguing that GHOST RIDER: SPIRIT OF VENGEANCE is a great movie. I am arguing that it is a very entertaining one, and on its own merits. There’s too much talent here, too many thrilling moments to write this movie off as an accident. What we have is a very distinct expression of what some people thought would be really cool, whether or not the rest of society agrees with them. And if nothing else it certainly isn’t a film that conforms to the increasingly rigid structure of the modern superhero blockbuster.
Look, that structure exists for a reason: because it really does work, a lot of the time. But it’s not a checklist. It doesn’t even have to be a guideline. Weird, crazy films like GHOST RIDER: SPIRIT OF VENGEANCE can exist too, and when they’re this off the wall they really deserve to find an audience that’s on the same wavelength.
So get drunk on cheap beer while blasting Megadeath, and then put on GHOST RIDER: SPIRIT OF VENGEANCE. See if you don’t have a good time. Yes, it’s got a lot of problems but don’t we all? The weirdos deserve love too, and if you love weird shit, you might just love GHOST RIDER: SPIRIT OF VENGEANCE.