Ever since breaking out with the first Crank film, directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor have struggled to find another niche that suited them as well-- and their failures, like the dreadful Gamer and even the less successful Crank 2, have proven how hard this is. Their teaming with Nicolas Cage on Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance seems ideal on paper, a match-up of a fearless actor with completely loony directors, all of them ready and willing to give fans the no-holds-barred Ghost Rider movie they missed the first time around. But with no one to rein them in, and a snide, tongue-in-cheek tone that makes the entire story almost meaningless, this terrible trio make a film that claims to be daring and thrilling, but sputters out early and a noisily into a ditch it can't dig out of.
Cage, god love him, is fully committed to his dual role of former motorcycle stuntman Johnny Blaze as well as Ghost Rider, the flame-skulled creature he becomes when possessed by the demon that lives inside him. WIth pretty much no interest in linking up to the previous film, Spirit of Vengeance starts with a quick, beautifully animated intro to the character, then gives Johnny a shot at redemption when a wine-loving Algerian monk (Idris Elba) offers him an exorcism in exchange for helping rescue a mysterious child. The kid, who of course comes in tow with a smoking hot mom (Violante Placido), is apparently being pursued by the same baddies who went after Elba in the beginning of the film, and they're all connected back to Roarke, a.k.a. the Devil himself, played by Ciaran Hinds with a hangdog expression that makes him look eerily like late-era Robert de Niro. This is a movie that casts Ciaran Hinds as Satan but only puts him in a handful of scenes-- that right there is evidence that something is wrong.
Avoid a big meal before stepping into this movie, since the opening action sequence combines Neveldine & Taylor's trademark whipsaw camera with native 3D effects that will make your stomach churn. Their camera tricks, which include following a motorcycle on rollerblades and strapping the director to the same stunt cables as a performer, remain effective, but there's no compensation for the disorienting effect of 3D, making that first action scene almost impossible to follow, and everything that comes after just a little too effective as well.
Neveldine and Taylor haven't tamped down their style at all for the 3D or even the film's plot, which leans heavy on mystical history, a surrogate father-son relationship and Johnny Blaze wanting rid of this demon when the audience wants exactly the opposite. The film's tone takes none of this seriously, and Cage cuts loose with such campy abandon when he's supposed to be tormented that even Johnny Blaze seems to get this is going nowhere. A Ghost Rider movie that's just an excuse for insane action would be fine, but Spirit of Vengeance leans hard on its flimsy plot so often that loses its paltry momentum. It's a film whose directors and star are trying and failing to run it in a completely different direction.
Fans of the Ghost Rider comics may see Spirit of Vengeance and be relieved to find a harder, crazier version of the character, but there's nothing really here for anyone else, save a handful of good effects and Idris Elba's mystifying, constantly funny French accent-- the way he relishes saying "Spee-rit of von-jonce" deserves Internet meme immortality. Neveldine and Taylor captured lightning in a bottle once, but chalk this up as another failed attempt to repeat the trick.