I’ll be honest. I didn’t want to write this review, but the devil made me do it.
When “Ghost Rider” (2007) cruised onto Blu-ray, I gave it a good review, as only 26 percent of Rotten Tomatoes critics did. I thought that Cage threw himself into the role with playful abandon, and that the result was a respectable adaptation of the Marvel comic book.
This time, bedeviled, I’m siding with the 82 percent who think the sequel is rotten. The reason? It’s almost unwatchable. That’s harsh, I know. But if any film needed the additional boost of a 3D theatrical release that this one got, it’s “Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance.” And in the spirit of vengeance, this review is my payback for a wasted night—though I have to admit that I couldn’t even make it through the entire film. In my defense, neither could my teenage son, who’s as into the Marvel movies as anyone. It bored the heck out of us.
We couldn’t decide which was worse: directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor’s annoying insistence on an intrusive camera style that features more tilts than a Vegas slot machine—presumably their way of making the film “edgy” and hiding the fact that it’s really not—or the insipid script from David S. Goyer (“Batman Begins”) and two co-writers whose only previous experience was in television.
Then there’s Cage himself, who seems to have already flamed out as Johnny Blaze, the former stunt biker who made a deal with the devil in order to save his dying father . . . who died anyway. That’s the thing about making a deal with the devil: you have to read the fine print, and you get the feeling that for as much fun as Cage seemed to be having the first time around, in “Spirit of Vengeance” he was probably thinking about that contract and wondering how many more of these stupid sequels he had to do.
Even the premise sets the film back on its heels. It’s some nonsense about a boy and his mother who are in danger because mercenaries hired by Roarke (Ciarán Hinds as the devil) are trying to wrest them from the castle monastery they’ve been hiding out at. The good guys are trying to fight the forces of evil and protect the boy. Naturally, Roarke has a reason for his interest in the lad, but you’d think that the devil would have made so many deals with people that his list of owed favors would preclude the need for hiring mercenaries. I mean, isn’t he supposed to be the ultimate Godfather? If he wanted something done, wouldn’t he simply wave his hand and that would be that? Then there’s Johnny Blaze, who learns that if he gets involved, he can get out of his own deal with the devil and stop turning into Ghost Rider, a skeleton with a flaming head.
And let’s not discount the importance of that flaming head. Without the visual effects rendered in high campy style, “Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance” would be a B movie with an A movie budget. But, of course, style and substance are two very different things, and the style isn’t nearly enough to compensate for all of the other deficiencies.
In the first “Ghost Rider,” Mark Steven Johnson (“Simon Birch,” “Daredevil”) was saddled with an origin story but still managed more character development and sensible plotting than this plodding and toxic sequel, which poisons every attempt by the cast to turn this into something worthwhile. Idris Elba can’t do it as the good priest Moreau, Violante Placido can’t do it as the boy’s mother who also had a close encounter with the devil, and Johnny Whitworth can’t do it as the main antagonist other than the devil. Bad writing and direction are too much for any of them to overcome. Changing the setting to Europe doesn’t help. And Marvel comics fans deserve something better.
I wrote of the Blu-ray that at least “Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance” looks good in HD, with the AVC/MPEG-4 encode leaving no obvious imperfections other than a few minor banding issues. It’s worth mentioning that in HD, presented in 2.40:1 aspect ratio, the special effects look superb and even the dark scenes offer gradations of blacks so that it’s like looking at a high-tech scan. Detail is incredible in all situations. But the 3D version? Other than greater visual depth, there’s no “wow” factor here when there really ought to be. There are a few floaters that break the plane of the TV, but nothing that makes you sit up and take notice. I actually think the Blu-ray was stronger, visually, because it was lighter and livelier.
The audio presentation is at least solid. Featured is an English DTS-HD MA 5.1 audio that’s fully immersive, with a logical movement of sound across the field and enough active rear-speaker action to complement the front and center channels. The timbre is rich and full, and whether it’s the sound of an explosion or a footstep this audio does an amazing job. What’s more, you don’t have to listen to this at a higher volume to be able to hear the dialogue, which is nicely balanced. It’s a near-perfect audio, with additional options in French and Spanish DTS-HD MA 5.1 and Catalan Dolby Digital 5.1 (apparently Cage is big in Spain). Subtitles are in English, English SDH, French, and Spanish.
Included is a picture-in-picture video commentary featuring the directors, who cover the usual bases while having fun and also campaigning for the film. At times, the directors even stand in front of the film while it’s playing and offer animated responses. It’s more entertaining than the film itself, which is sad.
The main behind-the-scenes feature is “The Path to Vengeance: Making Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance,” a 90-minute documentary that’s broken into chapters: “Blazing a New Path,” “Patience is Not a Virtue: Pre-Production,” “We Will Burn This City to Bitter Ashes,” “To Hell and Back: Production,” “Walking in Both Worlds: Post-Production,” and “The Fires of Hell Will Purify You: Release.” Again, when you listen to these guys at Comic con or hear them talk about each section, you sense a disconnect between the film they’re talking about and the film they made. If only the energy and exuberance from the bonus features carried over to the film.
Rounding out the bonus features is a UV Digital Copy and six deleted scenes that average two minutes each.
I gave “Ghost Rider” the benefit of the doubt, but with the sequel I doubt the benefit. It feels as pointless and confused and exploitative as any sequel I’ve seen, and even 3D isn’t enough to save it. Save your money. Read “The Devil and Daniel Webster” or Doctor Faustus. Listen to Robert Johnson. Or just be a decent human being, so you’ll never have the devil to pay.