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"Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance" reps a marginal improvement on the series' first installment and contains enough idiosyncrasies to launch it ahead of the moribund "Season of the Witch."

Hardly the worst discount-rate Nicolas Cage actioner to be released in the film calendar’s dead zone, “Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance” reps a marginal improvement on the series’ first installment and contains enough idiosyncrasies to launch it ahead of the moribund “Season of the Witch,” which lumbered through theaters around this time last year. Yet the pic is still much too rickety, slapdash and surprisingly dull to qualify as a good barrel-bottom pleasure. 3D ticket prices and dearth of competition should help first-weekend B.O., with a subsequent dropoff all but assured.

Directed by the Mark Neveldine-Brian Taylor team responsible for “Crank,” one of the most enjoyably trashy actioners in recent memory, “Spirit of Vengeance” imports only a few whiffs of that film’s Red Bull-drenched anarchy. Idris Elba, for one, goes for the gusto in his absurd role as an alcoholic, motorcycle-riding French monk, and Cage is gifted a sublimely extended freakout moment that should slot in perfectly after “Wicker Man” outtakes in one of the star’s hall-of-shame highlight reels on YouTube. The rest, however, refuses to adhere to this what-the-hell principle, stranding its players in a muddily shot morass.

Cage reprises his role as Johnny Blaze, a onetime stunt motorcyclist who once made a deal with the devil’s earthly incarnation, the prosaically monikered Rourke (Ciaran Hinds), and now suffers from periodic bouts of demonological transformation, turning into a biker with a fiery skull.

At least, that’s the backstory. Cage actually spends the vast majority of the film in mournful human form, starting off in hiding in Eastern Europe (the onscreen titles don’t get any more specific than that), where rebel monk Moreau (Elba) tracks him down. Moreau needs his help finding a young boy (Fergus Riordan) who may be the devil’s spawn, and promises to reverse Blaze’s curse if he complies. That this accentless boy has a gorgeous, heavily accented Roma mother (Violante Placido); is pursued by a gaggle of indistinguishable thugs (led by the perversely nonthreatening Johnny Whitworth); and gets to re-enact the unlikely-father-figure bonding scenes from “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” with Cage is all par for course.

The final setpiece finally gives the audience its money’s worth, with a decently staged freeway chase, but until that point, the action sequences bear the brunt of the film’s budgetary limitations. Shot with low, upward-facing angles and frequently cutting away to acid-trip dream sequences, the fighting is hard to wrap one’s head around, and the titular hero’s movements are so blurred by jump cuts and quick closeups that he rarely comes into focus. Given a franchise based around a flaming, chain-wielding biker-warrior hellspawn, it’s strange that the filmmakers should be so quick to push the character into the margins.

“Spirit of Vengeance” is weighted down for long stretches in the middle, as it starts to treat its own religious hokum plotline with undue seriousness. But then again, the script is probably best when it steers clear of attempted humor, as Cage’s “you’re the devil’s baby-mama” line reading and a 10-years-too-late Jerry Springer joke attest to. (Even the classless yet potentially riotous sight of Ghost Rider urinating flame fails to draw a laugh.)

The f/x supervisors do yeoman’s work disguising the film’s limited resources, and the 3D is adequate enough, even though the color palette ranges from murky to washed-out, with plenty of distracting lens flares in between.

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance

Production

A Sony Pictures Entertainment release of a Columbia Pictures and Hyde Park presentation in association with Imagenation Abu Dhabi and Marvel Knights. Produced by Steven Paul, Ashok Amritraj, Michael De Luca, Avi Arad, Ari Avad. Executive producers, Gary Foster, David S. Goyer, Mark Steven Johnson, E. Bennett Walsh. Directed by Neveldine/Taylor. Screenplay, Scott M. Gimple, Seth Hoffman, David S. Goyer, from a story by Goyer, based on the Marvel comic.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color/B&W, 3D), Brandon Trost; editor, Brian Berdan; music, David Sardy; music supervisor, Kier Lehman; production designer, Kevin Phipps; art directors, Adrian Curelea, Serban Porupca, Justin Warburton-Brown; set decorator, Dominic Capon; costume designer, Bojana Nikitovic; sound (Dolby Digital/SDDS/Datasat), Roland Winke; re-recording mixer, Steven Ticknor; special effects supervisor, Nick Allder; visual effects supervisor, Eric Durst; stereographer, Ben Breckenridge; assistant director, Sean Cameron Guest; casting, Gail Stevens, Colin Jones. Reviewed at Regal Cinemas L.A. Live, Feb. 17, 2012. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 95 MIN.

With

Johnny Blaze/Ghost Rider - Nicolas Cage
Nadya - Violante Placido
Rourke - Ciaran Hinds
Moreau - Idris Elba
Ray Carrigan - Johnny Whitworth
Danny - Fergus Riordan
With: Spencer Wilding, Sorin Tofan, Jacek Koman, Anthony Head, Cristian Iacob, Christopher Lambert.

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