Oddly, Patrick Lussier’s Nicolas Cage vehicle Drive Angry feels more like a Ghost Rider movie than either of the official outings for Marvel’s demon biker hero, who has been somewhat inhibited on film by the need to secure a family-friendly rating despite Johnny Blaze’s status as one of the darker Marvel characters.
This not-quite-a-reboot retains Cage as Johnny Blaze (and a tweak made to his origin whereby he has sold his soul to save his father rather than – as in the comics – his foster father) from Mark Steven Johnson’s Ghost Rider (2007), but otherwise starts from scratch, dispensing with a supporting cast and most of the mythology. Peter Fonda’s Mephisto – Marvel’s distinctive version of the Devil, who has bothered the Silver Surfer, Spider-Man and others – is replaced in Spirit of Vengeance by a big-chinned, glowering Ciaran Hinds as Mr Roark (evoking the Ricardo Montalban character from Fantasy Island?). The 1970s run of Ghost Rider, primary source for the film version, was a bizarro mash-up of Evel Knievel, Death Wish and The Exorcist. Johnson carried over the comic’s distinctive modern Western/road movie backdrop, which is here abandoned in favour of trips to Romania and Turkey that allow for some ancient ritual sites but also give the film something of the flavour of shot-on-the-cheap-in-Eastern-Europe quickies like the Subspecies or Bloodstone series.
This is stuck with a knock-off antichrist plot in which young Danny (named for the 1990s incarnation of Ghost Rider, Danny Ketch), a lad spawned on human mother Nadya (Violente Placido – this year’s Olga Kurylenko) by the Devil incarnate as a future vessel for his evil spirit. Meanwhile, Nadya’s rotten ex-boyfriend Carrigan (Johnny Whitworth – this year’s Dermot Mulroney wannabe) gets transformed into an albino vampire type (Blackout, a baddie from the Danny Ketch comics) whose touch sends people into a dark place where flesh and other material decays to nothing – but still isn’t any use when it comes to tangling with the flaming skull hero, registering as even less of a threat than Wes Bentley’s feeble infernal pretender last time out. Ghost Rider was always a great series of covers, splash pages and panels rather than a great comic, but this fails even to rise to the middling watermark of Johnson’s film in matching its imagery, despite 3D chains, the fiery-socketed ‘penance stare’, a cooler/darker/edgier look for the flaming skull and Crank boys Neveldine/Taylor as directors.
The major problem is a duff script by TV writers Scott M.Gimple and Seth Hoffman, from a story by comics specialist David S. Goyer (who has had a hand in the Blade and Batman franchises and even wrote the David Hasselhoff Nick Fury Agent of SHIELD TV movie) which slings together an insultingly mouldy set of plot conventions – yet another conflicted antichrist, more useless monks (plot-explaining good guy abbot Anthony Head and facially tattooed maniac abbot Christopher Lambert get about the same amount of screen time before being summarily killed off) and a running joke about Idris Elba’s wine-drinking (his only character trait). The Ghost Rider’s powers vary from scene to scene and Johnny has a Superman 2-like spell of being the ordinary bloke he always wanted to be just as it turns out he needs to be demon-possessed after all, but the character suffers from having a power-set so extreme he can shrug off super-bazooka shells which means he has to be opposed by thugs too stupid to stop firing useless rounds and head for the hills (a frequent Superman problem) suggesting that the Devil finds it impossible to recruit decent help. Cage is lean but inexpressive, even when his head isn’t digitally replaced with a burning skull.