When they get out on the road, some folks turn nasty. Sunday school teachers tailgate. Social workers lay on the horn. Grandmothers shake their fists. There's something about merging man and metal that makes people a little … aggressive.
Even so, Johnny Blaze sorta takes it to an extreme.
Oh, Johnny's never been exactly a defensive driver. The guy used to jump school busses with his motorcycle. But ever since he signed that deal with the devil, he's been, literally, hell on wheels. He turns into a demon with a flaming skull for a head and atrocious highway etiquette—bringing fiery vengeance to all who cross his path.
Johnny is not happy about his situation. Never mind the power it gives him. He'd just like to be normal again.
Turns out, he may get his chance. (Again.)
One day, a mysterious dude named Moreau rides over to Johnny's out-of-the-way pad in Eastern Europe and offers him a deal. There's this boy named Danny, see, who's being chased by some very bad men, and the kid could use a little protection. Get the boy to a place of safety, Moreau says, and you can have your soul back.
Sounds easy enough. I mean, the Rider can tackle pert near any mortal threat that comes his way … and it's not as if the kid's going to be chased by the devil himself, right?
Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance has some good messages. Unfortunately—at least for a movie reviewer trying to separate "positive elements" from the rest of his review—they're often tied together in a knot so tight my fingers are starting to bleed while untangling the thing with my keyboard.
For instance: Johnny and Nadya (Danny's mother) want to save the boy from infernal evildoers. And we certainly have to laud Nadya for her unconditional love of the kid. She's made a lot of mistakes in her life, she admits, but "Danny's the one good thing I ever did."
Awesome, don't you think?
Well, sure—except that Danny happens to be the literal spawn of Satan. It's great to say, "Hey, my son may have his problems, but I love him no matter what." It's another to say, "Man, having sex with the devil was the best thing I ever did—which is, in a way, what Nadya says.
Still, let's give props to the "good guys" here for trying to save the wee lad (no matter who his father might be) from a fate truly worse than death. (More on that later.) Johnny, who wrestles with his own demon, can empathize more with Danny than most. "This power we have comes from a dark place," Johnny says. "But it's not who we are. We can use it for good."
OK. Again, sure. Not exactly biblical, of course. Evil doesn't produce good just 'cause you happen to want it to on a given morning. But I guess if you let this big ole mess stand as the comic book movie that it is, we can say it's much better that Johnny helps instead of hurts his new young charge. And taken metaphorically, it read like this: We should all fight our sins and failings and internal darkness.
The demon possessing Johnny has a complicated backstory: Once heaven's "Spirit of Justice," the former angel was "tricked" and dragged down to hell with the rest of heaven's outcasts where it was driven mad and became the merciless Spirit of Vengeance. We're told it'll kill anyone who's not completely blameless. "In his eyes, you're not different from (evil dude) Carrigan," Johnny tells Nadya. "You're no different from any of them." But there's a question of whether the Spirit of Vengeance is altogether bad. After all, he's always been presented as a sort of spiritual free agent in the foundational Marvel comics and the first movie, and here we're told that Justice may still live somewhere inside Vengeance's flaming skull.
Before Johnny undergoes a ritual to rid himself of the spirit, he and Moreau share an impromptu communion meal. "This is the Lamb of God," Moreau says, breaking a piece of bread. Johnny then jokes about how stale it is. Moreau tells Johnny to confess his deepest, darkest sin (but he doesn't use that word) before undergoing the potentially lethal ceremony.
The devil—named Roarke—kidnaps Danny, and the two (surrounded by black-cloaked followers) undergo a ritual designed to transfer Satan's essence into Danny. Why Danny? Because Roarke also apparently signed a blood contract with Nadya, saving her life in exchange for the right to have a child with her.
Danny, we learn, has all of his father's power. We see him subdue the Rider with a command and, later, shoot flame/spirit into a willing mortal vessel.
Moreau appears to work with a secret Christian organization consisting of priest-warriors wearing clerical garb. And Moreau and the Rider take the boy to another spiritual locale populated by men who dress like monks and appear to have Scripture tattooed on their bodies and heads. "You mustn't be afraid," one says. "It was God who led you here."
[Spoiler Warning] But this organization, rather than protecting Danny, tries to kill him. "That boy is one of God's children!" Moreau protests. "No," the head priest says. "He is not."
Somewhat unrelated to that, but worth noting while I'm in the middle of spoiling certain plot points, are these spiritually loaded details: 1) Johnny is freed of his Rider alter ego, but he asks to be possessed by it again when he "needs" it to fight off Danny's assailants. 2) As the Rider once again, he undergoes a cathartic redemption—performing a compassionate act that, of course, would be beyond the insane, given the evil Spirit of Vengeance's hellish persuasions. Then, before the credits roll, the Rider is engulfed not in red, but blue flames—symbolic of the spirit returning to the light.
Elsewhere, weapons are deemed equal to or better than faith. Yet Moreau credits God with saving his life. After one of his mortal henchmen dies, Roarke resurrects the guy and gives him the "power of decay," wherein everything the man-demon touches rots or breaks apart before his (and our) eyes.
Crosses are worn and handled, the film exploiting their iconography as a form of shorthand.
We hear, of course, of Nadya and Roarke having a child together. It's also intimated that she and Carrigan we sexually coupled. Nadya uses her feminine attractiveness to ensnare sexually minded businessman. When one takes off his wedding band and sidles up to her, offering money for time with her, Danny steals his ring and money while chasing him away.
When a film proffers Nicolas Cage as a flaming, skull-headed demon, one can quite safely assume that it will gleefully assail its audience with outlandish, cartoonish violence. Indeed, the Rider carries with him glowing-hot chains that can incinerate people on contact. He also sometimes grasps people by the head and causes them deep anguish (assumedly from the guilt he makes them feel for their misdeeds) before they too are consumed in flame. Moreover, every vehicle that the Rider operates turns into a flaming monstrosity, and he kills any number of folks while operating such heavy machinery.
His enemies fill him with bullets to no avail. The Rider does, however, seem to be susceptible to bombs and grenades—one of which sends him (as Johnny) to the hospital. He's sent careening into a car and high up into the air.
We see Carrigan's deadly touch rotting the bodies and faces of several foes. He pokes out the eyes of one man with his fingers. (We don't see the impact.) Another disintegrating victim head-butts Carrigan, his own head exploding into a shower of ashes.
People shoot and kill one another. Bad guys manhandle and beat up both Nadya and Danny. Danny jumps from a ledge and breaks his ankle. Someone nearly cuts off his head with a sword. Others are killed in a massive car chase in which vehicles flip, crash and explode. A man is crushed by huge chunks up concrete. Another is literally yanked down through the ground into hell itself.
Desperate to end his life, Johnny pulls Nadya's drawn gun to his forehead, telling her to pull the trigger.
Crude or Profane Language
One f-word and one French word that would be translated into the s-word. Characters say and shout other profanities including "a‑‑" (a half-dozen times), "b‑‑ch" (twice), "p‑‑‑" (once) and a few crude terms for bits of the male anatomy. "H‑‑‑" is used as a curse word a couple of times and "d‑‑n" is spoken a handful of times—twice with God's name.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Johnny calls Moreau an alcoholic. He says it partly in jest, but we do see the guy often sipping from a flask. Moreau praises monks on their knowledge of wine, drinking from a vintage bottle. Then he pulls another ancient-looking bottle from a recess, telling Johnny it's more than 2,000 years old. "When this is over, we will share it, no?" he says. Later, they do drink a bit of the wine.
Johnny is given morphine in the hospital, and before he leaves he steals a bevy of pain-killing drugs. Danny is given a sedative before the soul-swapping ceremony begins.
Other Negative Elements
Danny asks Johnny what happens if he needs to urinate when he's the Rider. Johnny jokes that it'd look something like a flamethrower—and then we see an image of him doing it (from the rear).
Beyond setting up marks for Danny to pickpocket, Nadya steals at least two cars.
Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance is a silly, sorry movie. Few who see it will be looking for theological insight. And that, I suppose, is good, as there's little to be found here.
The diabolical spirituality on display resembles not infernal power, but video game power—special abilities that allow characters to conquer a given level's adversaries, move up and move on. Never mind that at the end of the first film Johnny chooses to keep his curse and tells the devil that he's going to use it to help others. Now he's really, really ready to get rid of the nasty spirit inside of him. But while he's a fast rider, he's a terribly slow learner. After he ousts the Rider, he very quickly concludes that he's made a big mistake. Without the Rider on call, he reasons, there's no way he can save the boy. "I should never have gotten rid of the power," he says. "I know that now." And when he has opportunity to reclaim the spirit, he accepts.
Lucky for him, the Spirit of Vengeance seems to have something of a softer, gentler side, and all's well that ends well, it seems. Evil red flames morph into a beautiful, calming blue as Johnny says he feels the Spirit of Justice stirring deep within.
And to that ostensibly happy ending, the only thing I can say is, Didn't any of these people watch The Lord of the Rings?
Sure, Johnny's motives are magnificent. But if this Ghost Rider sequel has a moral to its CGI silliness, it's this: Power—even incredibly dark power—is OK to tap into if you use it the right way and for the right reasons. Gandalf, I think, would quibble: Sauron's ring was, like Johnny's possessor, an incredibly powerful, incredibly tempting weapon. And none knew better than Gandalf how badly that was going to end.
Alas, Johnny does not even for a second consider his sage wisdom before welcoming the Rider once again.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Action/Adventure, Drama, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Horror
Nicolas Cage as Johnny Blaze/Ghost Rider; Violante Placido as Nadya; Ciarán Hinds as Roarke; Idris Elba as Moreau; Johnny Whitworth as Ray Carrigan; Fergus Riordan as Danny
Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor (Gamer, Crank: High Voltage, Crank)
February 17, 2012
Paul Asay Paul Asay