Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance

If there was any hope for the “Ghost Rider” franchise after that disastrous first entry five years ago, it was in hiring “Crank” directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor. Their frenetic, cracked-out style would theoretically complement Nicolas Cage’s over-the-top sensibilities, resulting in a comic book movie that would at least be dizzily entertaining, if not actually “good.”

That was the theory, anyway. But while Neveldine and Taylor do bring their visual flair, and while Cage is as deliberately insane as ever, “Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance” is a plodding waste of time and energy. It has a dull, jumbled storyline and a collection of vague characters whose actions don’t mean anything. What a tragic misuse of perfectly good craziness!

Whatever happened in the last film doesn’t matter, which is good, since I don’t remember. Cage’s character, Johnny Blaze, fills us in on the basics: he signed a deal with the devil to save his father, and now he turns into Ghost Rider whenever he’s in the presence of evil. His superpowers as Ghost Rider are being on fire and looking scary. He can ride a motorcycle, but he’s also pretty good at that when he’s not Ghost Rider. If you are evil, watch out, because Ghost Rider will throw his fire chains at you and turn you into ash and/or take your soul, I think!

Johnny Blaze is bummin’ around “Eastern Europe” (the movie doesn’t care to be more specific), ostensibly because he’s trying to get away from his past, but more likely because movies are cheaper to shoot there. He runs into Moreau (Idris Elba), a priest from an obscure religious order, who says there’s this boy who’s been taken by bad guys, and if Johnny can save him, the Ghost Rider curse will be lifted. Johnny doesn’t like being the Incredible Flaming Hulk, so he is pleased to accept this task, though it’s curious that he does not first ask for some verification that Moreau can actually deliver on this promise.

The boy, Danny (Fergus Riordan), is the subject of a prophecy that involves the winter solstice, yada yada, and the devil — here going by the name of Roarke (Ciaran Hinds) — has employed a sinister dude named Carrigan (Johnny Whitworth) to retrieve him from the monks protecting him. Why can’t Roark do it himself? Dunno. The devil has a lot of power, but not when it would be useful. Meanwhile, Danny’s mother, a woman of dubious character named Nadya (Violante Placido), is trying to keep him safe from the cult that wants him, yada yada.

That’s all well and good. Save the boy, lift the curse. But then Johnny saves the boy and the movie still has like an hour to go, so there’s a lot of engine-revving, plot-wise. How do you screw up such a simple, popcorn-worthy concept? By muddying the story with anemic villains (Carrigan is granted the power to make things decay!), completely forgettable supporting players, and a series of flat confrontations between a hero with ill-explained abilities and people with perplexing motivations. A movie about a man who is frequently on fire SHOULD NOT BE BORING!

I will say, however, that Nicolas Cage is frequently a lot of fun to watch when he’s Johnny Blaze. (When he turns into Ghost Rider, he’s just special effects, and he doesn’t say much.) There’s been some question the last few years of just how in on the joke Cage is with regard to his peculiar style of mega-acting, but his appearances in recent weeks — including a self-mocking bit on “SNL” — suggest he is well aware of it. Turns out it doesn’t matter. Whether the batpoop-craziness of his performance is intentional or not, it is a wonder to behold. “Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance” is a bad movie, but thanks to Cage it is not entirely without entertainment value.

C- (1 hr., 35 min.; PG-13, one F-word, a lot of comic book violence.)