The movie opens with the voice of the Caretaker (Sam Elliot) relating the legend of the Ghost Rider - a damned soul condemned to walk the earth and obey the Devil's orders. A Ghost Rider had been sent to collect a parchment known as the Contract of San Venganza, which holds the power of 1000 evil souls. The Ghost Rider knew that this Contract was pure evil, so he betrayed his heritage and outran the Devil himself.
The action changes to a carnival, where the father-son stunt duo of Barton Blaze (Brett Cullen) and his son Johnny (Matt Long) are performing on ramps for the crowd. After the show, Barton chastises Johnny for showing off and being extra reckless in an attempt to impress his girlfriend Roxanne Simpson (Raquel Alessi).
Later that day, Roxanne and Johnny meet under a tree, and Roxanne tells Johnny that her father is sending her away. Johnny decides to pack up and they will run away together. They share a kiss before departing.
Johnny goes back to his house to find his father asleep, holding a piece of paper. It is a report from a doctor, and the news is not good- he's been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Crushed, Johnny goes out to work on his motorcycle, when he is approached by Mephistopheles (Peter Fonda) who asks if Johnny will perhaps one day ride for him. Mephistopheles mentions Barton's illness, and offers to help. Johnny asks what he could give in return, and Mephistopheles says "Your soul." Johnny, thinking the man crazy or sarcastic, responds "OK." Mephistopheles offers Johnny a contract, and Johnny cuts himself when opening it. Mephistopheles accepts this blood drop as an appropriate signature.
Johnny wakes up in bed with Barton energetic and cheerful. Barton confesses to Johnny that he had been sick, but now feels "heathly as a horse." Johnny is stunned. Barton attempts a new stunt at the show the next day (jumping through a ring of fire), but he comes up short and crashes. Johnny tearfully watches his father die while Mephistopheles laughs ominously.
Johnny sees Roxanne at the hilltop tree, but does not join her and rides off into the distance. Mephistopheles approaches Johnny, promising that one day he will come for Johnny's services when needed.
We fast-forward to 10 years later. Johnny (now played by Nicolas Cage) is the most famous daredevil in the world. He is attempting a new stunt at a sold-out stadium, jumping over a row of parked semi rigs. Johnny clears the targets on the field, but comes up short on the landing, wrecking his bike and sending him crashing into a wall. Johnny's pit crew, led by his best friend Mack (Donal Logue) rush to his side and find Johnny dazed but uninjured. The crowd roars with cheers as Johnny gets back up.
Later, as Johnny and his crew are on the road, Mack is perplexed, believing that there is no way Johnny should have survived that crash. Mack suggests that maybe Johnny has a guardian angel, and Johnny mildly suggests that "Maybe it's something else" as he looks out the window, and momentarily sees his face turn into a skeleton with a flash of lightning. Mack and the crew watch a TV advertisement for Johnny's next stunt, taking place in his old hometown. Johnny will be attempting to clear an entire football field (300 Feet), jumping over 50 cars in the process.
Meanwhile, another strange figure in black, Blackheart, (Wes Bentley) arrives at a Hell's Angels club out in the desert. He proceeds to kill nearly all of the members with a single touch.
Mack and Johnny arrive at Johnny's apartment, where Mack tries to talk Johnny out of doing this new stunt because it seems too risky. Mack is worried because Johnny is becoming increasingly reckless while delving into strange interests (Johnny's apartment has a lot of strange books about the occult). Johnny responds that he is merely looking for "a sign and a second chance."
Back at the Hell's Angels bar, Blackheart is approached by 3 elemental spirits; Gressil (earth), Wallow (water) and Abigor (wind) and recruits their help in finding the Contract of San Venganza. The spirits agree even though they are afraid of Mephistopheles (a name that angers Blackheart).
Johnny is getting ready for his new stunt when he is approached by a reporter for an interview. To his shock, it is his old girlfriend Roxanne (now played by Eva Mendes). Johnny is so stunned by her arrival that he cannot answer any of her interview questions. Roxanne breaks off the interview and leaves before Johnny begins his jump.
Mack joins Johnny on the ramp, feeling relieved now that Johnny has agreed to take the cars out of the jump. Johnny then reveals that he thought of something else to put in, and the stadium roof opens to allow six Blackhawk helicopters to descend in. Mack is angry about this change and demands to know what prompted such an idea. Johnny explains that his father Barton thought it would be cool.
Johnny sets up his bike, though his mind is obviously still focused on Roxanne. Without warning, he throttles up and heads down the ramp. After a few tense seconds, Johnny makes it across with a perfect landing. Johnny waves to the crowd and then speeds off.
Roxanne and her news van are riding down the expressway when they are confronted by Johnny. Johnny pulls a few stunts to get the van to stop so he can talk to Roxanne. Roxanne relents, telling Johnny to meet her in the restaurant of her hotel later that evening. A group of motorists angry at the stop of traffic storm over to see what is happening, but when they find out that Johnny Blaze is on the freeway they swarm around asking for autographs.
Blackheart and his gang confront Mephistopheles, the man in black who made the contract with Johnny. Mephistopheles warns them about trying to take the contract of San Venganza, and threatens them with the Ghost Rider. Blackheart is unafraid. It is revealed through this conversation that Blackheart is Mephistopheles' son.
Johnny is preparing for his date with Roxanne when he notices his hands glowing bright red. He washes them only to observe steam rising off his palms. Johnny goes out into the alley to find a brand-new motorcycle revved up and waiting for him. Mephistopheles appears, revealing that he has decided to invoke Johnny's services. Mephistopheles explains that he has been keeping Johnny alive all this time so that this day could come. Mephistopheles compels Johnny to get on the new bike and sends him off after Blackheart, offering to return Johnny's soul if he is successful.
Johnny's new bike sets off at such a speed that it burns a trail of fire and destruction through the town.
Blackheart and his gang arrive at a train yard where they are confronted by the night watchman. Blackheart is curious, stating that this land was once a cemetery. The watchman explains that the graves were moved by St. Michael's Church, and Blackheart kills him.
Johnny arrives and dismounts the bike, thrashing in pain. Fire erupts from his feet and hands, as Johnny roars with a mixture of pain and evil desire. Finally his head bursts into flame, revealing a skeletal skull. Johnny Blaze has become the new Ghost Rider.
Blackheart confronts the Ghost Rider and sends in his elementals to fight. Ghost Rider grabs some chains off a nearby wall to use as weapons but ist stopped when Gressil drives a truck into the building. Ghost Rider erupts from behind the truck, lighting one of his chains on fire and ensnaring Gressil. Gressil screams in pain as he is turned to stone and dissolves.
Ghost Rider whistles and his motorcycle appears. He touches the gas cap and the motorcycle transforms into a firey skull-and-chain entity, much like the Ghost Rider himself. He rides through town and spots a young woman being mugged. He grabs the mugger (who stabs him, but the knife merely melts off in Ghost Rider's body). Ghost Rider commands the mugger to "Look into my eyes." The mugger screams in horror as his memories of past crimes come back to haunt him. When this torture is finished, Ghost Rider tosses the mugger aside.
Ghost Rider ends his drive through town on the outskirts, obviously growing weaker by the oncoming morning. He arrives in a cemetary and slowly but painfully changes back into Johnny Blaze. Johnny collapses at the headstone of his father, Barton.
Roxanne, angry at Johnny for standing her up, reports on the chaos in town. The police find a license plate during the investigation that belongs to one of Johnny Blaze's bikes.
Johnny is found by the Caretaker, who offers help. Johnny is skeptical at first, but relents. The Caretaker explains that the Ghost Rider is essentially "the Devil's bounty hunter," who must hunt down anyone escaping from hell. Furthermore, the Ghost Rider only appears at night or in the presence of evil. Johnny remembers what he did to the mugger, and the caretaker explains that that was the Ghost Rider's greatest weapon - the Penance Stare. It makes anyone who feels it experience the pain of every sin they have caused.
The Caretaker explains the story of the last Ghost Rider, and the town of San Venganza's souls. He also reveals that the spirits following Blackheart are The Hidden- fallen angels cast out of Heaven. Johnny leaves to take care of some business, which the Caretaker advises against (Blackheart and The Hidden cannot come onto sacred ground such as the cemetery, so Johnny would be safer staying there).
Johnny looks at the devastation caused by last night's events. He meets Roxanne, who is very mad at him. Johnny goes back to his apartment and does some research about "fire elements," and is able to display a minor degree of control over his new powers. Roxanne arrives and asks him what has been going on with Johnny. Johnny decides to be honest with her, but Roxanne does not accept his story (selling the soul to the devil and becoming a bounty hunter), thinking he is either lying to keep her away or has gone insane.
Johnny walks outside and the police arrest him, thinking him responsible for the previous night's murders. Johnny denies any involvement, and the police throw him in a holding cell. The inmates recognize Johnny, and decide to attack him out of revenge for never seeing him fail in his stunt shows. One young inmate stands up for Johnny but he is knocked aside. The remaining inmates jump on Johnny, who effortlessly transforms into Ghost Rider and defeats them all.
Ghost Rider steals the lead thug's jacket and gloves, making small spikes emerge from the metal detailing. Ghost Rider proceeds to burn through the cell bars and leaves. He hesitates for a minute in confronting the young inmate who stood up for him, then proclaims the young man to be "Innocent" and walks off.
Blackheart is seen at St. Michael's Church, asking the minister about the Contract of San Venganza. The minister denies any knowledge, so Blackheart kills him. Upon learning that Ghost Rider is active again, Blackheart sends Abigor to deal with him.
Ghost Rider reclaims his motorcycle and escapes from police custody. The cops quickly give pursuit, eventually trapping him in a dead-end alley. Ghost Rider merely tilts his motorcycle and proceeds to ride straight up the building! Roxanne, in a building across the block, is packing to leave when she looks out and sees the strange display.
Ghost Rider confronts Abigor on the rooftop, but they are ambushed by a police helicopter. Ghost Rider uses his chains to throw the copter away from the roof so they do not interfere. Ghost Rider then attempts to catch Abigor just like he did with Gressil, but Abigor uses his wind powers to escape. This gives Ghost Rider an idea: he ignites a chain and spins it, causing a cyclone that pulls in Abigor. After a few minutes of resistance, the Wind Spirit is destroyed.
The police attempt to apprehend Ghost Rider as he comes down from the roof. Ghost Rider attempts to resist, until he spots Roxanne in the crowd. The flames on Ghost Rider's head grow fainter as he approaches Roxanne. The police see this as an advantage and open fire with their weapons. Ghost Rider conjures a wall of flame and escapes, retreating to the cemetery.
The Caretaker finishes the story of the Contract of San Venganza by telling Johnny about the previous Ghost Rider - a former Texas Ranger named Carter Slade. Slade became corrupt and made a deal with Mephistopheles to save his life. When Carter Slade saw what was happening at San Venganza, he took the Contract and hid it. The Caretaker puts forth the theory that Carter was buried with it.
Roxanne returns to Johnny's apartment where she meets Mack. Mack talks bout how Johnny has had weird interests recently and Roxanne begins to fip through some of Johnny's books. She is now convinced that what Johnny told her was true. Blackheart suddenly appears and kills Mack.
Johnny returns to find Mack dead and Blackheart holding Roxanne captive. He transforms into Ghost Rider and attempts to use the Penance Stare on Blackheart. He merely laughs, explaining that the Penance Stare will not work on him because he has no soul. Blackheat agrees to free Roxanne if Johnny brings him the Contract at the ruins of San Venganza by morning.
Johnny returns to the cemetery, vowing to dig up the entire place if need be. The Caretaker shatters his shovel, revealing a rolled-up parchment in the handle. It is the contract. Johnny decides to take it and have a final fight with Blackheart. The Caretaker relents, thinking that Johnny's circumstances make him unpredictable and he just might have an advantage.
The Caretaker whistles, summoning a mysterious horse from the shadows. He climbs on and bursts into flames. The Caretaker reveals that HE is Carter Slade, the previous Ghost Rider. Both Riders head out to San Venganza.
Carter escorts Johnny to San Venganza, but then collapses. Carter explains that the trip has exhausted the last of his Ghost Rider powers. Carter gives Johnny a shotgun and then rides off into the sunset, ready to face eternity for his actions.
Johnny is riding into San Venganza when he is ambushed by Wallow, the last surviving Hidden. Wallow pulls Johnny underwater, trying to drown him. Johnny counters by transforming into Ghost Rider and superheating the water, evaporating Wallow.
Blackheart appears with Roxanne in custody. He lets Roxanne go as Johnny hands over the contract. Before Blackheart can take the Contract, Johnny transforms into Ghost Rider and attacks. Blackheart manages to fight off Ghost Rider's attacks and reads the Contract, commanding the spirits within the town to join with him. The spirits emerge and unite with Blackheart, who then proclaims "My name is Legion; for we are many."
Roxanne attacks Legion with Carter Slade's shotgun. It wounds him but does little to slow his advance. Johnny catches the shotgun and infuses it with his Ghost Rider powers, turning it into a hell-fire weapon. The blast disintegrates Legion, but he effortlessly begins to reform.
Johnny realizes that Legion now has all thousand souls from San Venganza trapped within him, and has made himself vulnerable to Ghost Rider's greatest weapon. He transforms into Ghost Rider one last time and traps Legion long enough to use the Penance Stare. Legion screams in agony as the sins of one thousand souls pass through his body. Legion reverts to Blackheart and dies, the Penance Stare having succeeded once again.
Mephistopheles arrives and congratulates Johnny on his success. He offers to take back the Ghost Rider powers, but Johnny refuses. He decides to keep the powers and use them against Mephistopheles' evil. He is angry but he cannot take back the power by force, and vows to make Johnny pay.
Johnny and Roxanne share an emotional farewell as Johnny vows to head out and go wherever the road takes him.