You Will Believe a Man Can Turn into a Skeleton Who Also Rides a Motorcycle and is on Fire in “Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance”

Credit: Columbia Pictures
Ghost Rider riding a motorcycle in “Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance”

It doesn’t take much to make the Marvel Comics antihero named Ghost Rider look ridiculous: he is, after all, a skeleton (on fire) wearing a leather jacket (not on fire) who rides a motorcycle (kind of on fire).

The architects of the character’s resurgence in print during the 1990s—particularly writer Howard Mackie and artists Javier Saltares and Mark Texeira—tailored their version of the tormented demonic motorcyclist to play to his visual strengths. The character was always in motion, rarely chatty and oftentimes only materialized on half the pages of his own comic book. Of course, the character’s unexpected popularity resulted in Too Much Of A Good Thing, and Ghost Rider found himself awkwardly loitering around with an assembly of horror-themed characters (lumped together in a “Midnight Sons” branding initiative) and talking at length about a backstory that grew more convoluted with each inevitable spin-off title. I was recently re-reading a 1990′s “Fantastic Four” story arc in which Ghost Rider, Wolverine, The Hulk, and Spider-Man take over for the team, and artist Arthur Adams frequently (and somewhat mischievously) draws Ghost Rider with a puzzled and even sad expression on his face. It’s as if he’s asking the editors at Marvel: “Seriously? A Fantastic Four comic?”

If the character still managed to look out of place in a world populated by mole men and invisible women, just imagine how hard it is to pull off a Ghost Rider forced to interact with living, breathing human beings. Thankfully, the team behind 2012′s “Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance” have provided us with the best version of the character we’ll probably ever see in a live-action movie. While the Ghost Rider of the 2007 film seemed to reveal the limits of effects work every time its CGI form occupied the screen, the 2.0 version avoids the chasm of the uncanny valley by embracing the supernatural dimensions of the character. This Ghost Rider is larger-than-life: a cackling, bullet-guzzling creature given minimal dialogue and few opportunities for close encounters with human beings. Its jacket is covered in ash. Its face is reptilian. The flames and smoke pour from his skull, reflecting his mood or energy level. The character has an odd gait, and a way of sizing up its prey that suggests the mindset of a fallen angel relegated to wearing leather and fighting hired goons with chains.

Star Nicholas Cage has claimed he is channeling a figure he calls Baron Samedi, an “Afro-Caribbean icon” that he describes as a “spirit of death” who also “loves children.” I’d hate to misrepresent Baron Samedi or his estate in print, but I will say that whatever Cage needed to do seemed to do the trick. We are only given three real encounters with the film’s title character, and the fights he engages in are pretty one-sided. But at the same time I have a hard time envisioning many alternatives to this approach: Cage’s human face is not just a valuable asset to marketers but also a welcome sight to audiences, and too much CGI in a film, unless you’ve got Cameron cash, has never worked that many wonders. Do you remember the sequences from “The Mummy” franchise? Of course you don’t.

I don’t want a Ghost Rider film that evokes Lars Von Trier’s work, or even David Cronenberg or Clive Barker territory.

I was curious and even excited about the prospects for “Spirit of Vengeance” when Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor were announced as directors; the resulting film is not a resounding success, but it’s by no means the trainwreck suggested by the movie’s 15% Tomatometer rating. In fact, the critiques of the film have been more aggressively mediocre than the movie allegedly under review by these missives (though Kyle Smith of The New York Post remains as aggressively obnoxious and entertaining as always). In the grimy world of what passes for movie criticism these days, “Ghost Rider” was the perfect storm of “reviews that write themselves.” It can easily be transformed into another harbinger signaling the end of superhero film, another movie Nicholas Cage made for a cheap buck, another film (after “Gamer” and “Pathology”) that fails to leap the bar Neveldine and Taylor set with their insane “Crank” franchise.  Essentially, this PG-13 movie about a motorcyclist who sells his soul to the devil needed to be the “Godfather” of PG-13 movies about motorcyclists who sold their souls to the devil if it stood any chance of getting past these talking points.

I was trying to think of an arthouse comparison to “Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance,” but that’s not really the point of a movie like “Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance,” is it? And even “The Dark Knight” gets into hot water when you start reaching out beyond the contours of fantasy and sci-fi films. I love that movie, but it also hangs a lot on an absurd standoff involving ferryboats, class warfare, and Tiny Lister. And saying that “The Dark Knight” deserved an Oscar says more about your investment in the Oscars than it does about the merits of the movie. I don’t want a Ghost Rider film that evokes Lars Von Trier’s work, or even David Cronenberg or Clive Barker territory. On the other hand, an R-rated film would have been nice, and I think it would have freed up Neveldine and Taylor without necessarily losing the interest of pre-teens who like to see vengeance dispensed by skeletons.

Credit: Columbia Pictures
Nicholas Cage acting like he’s looking at a motorcycle in “Ghost Rider.”

As mentioned, Cage clearly showed up to play, not just to get paid. His pill-popping, twitchy Johnny Blaze (Ghost Rider’s alter ego) is refreshingly irreverent, especially when compared to the bad melodrama of Zach Snyder’s “Watchmen” adaptation. Blaze is doubly cursed, in that he’s made a bad deal with a devil in a universe founded on bad comic book logic. Neveldine and Taylor highlight the absurdity of this world, reminding us that they are hired guns temporarily working out the terms of their own Mephistophelean agreement to work on a valuable fictional franchise. They get their kicks without making the audience feel like fools for showing up. For instance, the absurdity of the Devil (Ciaran Hinds) occupying a human form that limited his cosmic power is mentioned and then quickly contextualized in a quick, tongue-in-cheek montage surveying the history of demonic-human relations. Blackout (Johnny Whitworth), an undead henchman granted the power to rot everything he touches, is shown attempting to eat something without reducing his food to ashes (don’t worry: he figures it out). There could be more of these moments, but what is here propels some of the quieter moments between set pieces.

I do agree with some of the negative critiques of the film. Given the amount of energy expended on making Ghost Rider a compelling visual presence on the screen, the story he finds himself tooling around in could have been more entertaining. The film’s characters get too wrapped up in the arbitrary plot that brought them together in the first place: the players could be more quickly assembled and cut loose so we’d have more time watching Cage, Whitworth, and Hinds chew scenery. Idris Elba and Violante Placido make the most of the their less meaty roles, but you wish that Neveldine and Taylor found more to do for them. And the obsession that producers of PG-13 action films have with assigning pivotal roles to children is the biggest shortcoming of the film. While the actor playing the boy at the center of the film’s storyline (Fergus Riordan) is not unlikeable, you get the sense that these characters would all be a lot more fun if they weren’t stuck on babysitting duty.

Ultimately, if you go looking for something to dislike about this film, you’ll find it. I expected most of these issues heading in to the theater: such is the agreement we make with ourselves when we decide to frequent PG-13 films in the days beyond our adolescent years.