Before you see Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, consider the following question: "Does the mantra 'Put the bunny back in the box?' make the tiny follicles on the nape of my neck stand up?"
If so, Spirit of Vengeance will light the fire in your belly like a kerosene/Thunderbird gimlet with an 800,000-Scoville-units habanero as a chaser. If not, this film may hold the appeal of a field trip through the Seventh Circle of Hell (and you have to write a school report about it).
NOTE: Minor Spoilers for Spirit of Vengeance ahead.
The road to Spirit of Vengeance has not been an easy one. This film takes a cue from 2008's The Incredible Hulk, another Marvel Comics superhero adaptation. Just as that film mostly ignored everything that happened in Ang Lee's 2003 Hulk, this film spends 30 seconds recapping 2007's Ghost Rider.
So yeah, it is the sort-of-not-really sequel to a movie everyone sort of-not-really enjoyed (but was profitable enough to warrant a follow-up). These aren't the most auspicious conditions to launch a film. Abysmal early buzz and a depressing, convoluted series of lawsuits between Marvel Comics and Ghost Rider co-creator Gary Friedrich have only been the crap flurries of a potential box office shitstorm.
Fortunately, Spirit of Vengeance is not the travesty those hyperbolic early reports suggested. There's a lot to love here, even if the moments of brilliance are doled out parsimoniously, like salt licks at a petting zoo.
Crank and Gamer directors Brian Taylor and Mark Neveldine take former stunt biker Johnny Blaze (Nicolas Cage) to the highways of Romania and Turkey. Blaze is struggling to keep Zarathos — the soul-munching demon that lurks inside him, which he acquired via a Satanic pact — from eating the neighborhood, so he lives alone in a Central Anatolian garage.
Fate comes a-knocking in the form of the French drunken monk Moreau (a delightful, unhinged Idris Elba). The blotto holy man offers Blaze a deal — Moreau and his army of warrior monks will exorcise Blaze's demon if the Ghost Rider rescues a mysterious little boy from Satan's army of Romanian gangsters. Blaze hates living in a garage, so he accepts this offer.
At this point, it's off to the wacky races. Nic Cage — who method-acted as the voodoo loa Baron Samedi while on set — is in gonzo Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans mode. His Blaze is a demonically possessed Bruce Banner who's slowly going insane while living in a grease-stained shack. Cage also plays Ghost Rider's body. He imbues the demon biker with a serpentine gait, not unlike an undead Mick Jagger.
Spirit of Vengeance's Rider looks good. His leather suit is peeling and frayed from containing a flaming skeleton. Similarly, his demonic antagonist Blackout (Johnny Whitworth, under prosthetics) juggles menace and silliness with aplomb (Blackout rots anything he touches, which also prevents him from eating food). And just for the record, the 3D isn't terrible, but it's far from necessary.
It'd be easy to review Spirit of Vengeance synecdochically, as it has so many choice quirks. Neveldine and Taylor eschewed the green screen and wisely utilized the stark beauty of the Turkish freeway system and the cave cities of Cappodocia. And unlike many recent superhero movies, SoV doesn't take itself too seriously (see: a drunk Idris Elba plummeting off a cliff to strains of "La Marseillaise," Ghost Rider's flamethrower urination).
But all these moments of grindhouse glee are cobbled together into one of the most weirdly edited (the plot clunks ahead in fits and starts, with Cage's narration plugging in the gaps) and annoyingly loud (heavy metal guitars, all the fucking time!) movies I've seen in a spell. Let's not even get into the hokey ending, which will inevitably be ignored should Ghost Rider 3 bubble up.
You get the sense that Spirit of Vengeance was a pretty good R-rated horror flick until someone chopped up the footage into a PG-13 jigsaw puzzle. In its current form, Spirit of Vengeance is a love-it-or-hate-it B-movie with a Marvel Comics pedigree. Think of it as a $75-million C.H.U.D. Cage and Crank fans, go all in. The rest of you, tread with caution.