This film was rated PG-13 by the MPAA for "horror violence and disturbing images".
In the days of the American Old West, Mephistopheles (Peter Fonda) sent his bounty hunter of the damned, the Ghost Rider, to retrieve a contract for a thousand corrupt souls from the town of San Venganza. Because such a large amount of souls would spell Hell on Earth if taken on by one demon, the Rider refused to give the contract — and therefore, the souls — to Mephistopheles; instead, he outran Mephistopheles and hid himself and the contract.
A century and a half later, Mephistopheles reaches out to seventeen-year-old stunt motorcycle rider Johnny Blaze (Matt Long/Nicolas Cage), offering to cure his father's lung cancer in exchange for Johnny's soul. Johnny inadvertently signs the contract when a drop of his blood lands on it. His father's cancer is cured, but he died that same day in a horrific bike crash. Johnny accuses Mephistopheles of causing his father's death, but Mephistopheles still owns Johnny's soul. Years later, Johnny has become a stunt rider famous for walking away from crashes unharmed.
During his next stunt, Johnny meets his childhood sweetheart Roxanne (Raquel Alessi/Eva Mendes), now a journalist, and asks her out on a date that evening. At the same time, Blackheart (Wes Bentley), son of Mephistopheles, comes to Earth to find the lost contract and use its power to overcome his father. He calls forth the fallen angel trio known as the Hidden, a trio of demon spirits who represent three of the four elements — Wallow/Water (Daniel Frederiksen), Gressil/Earth (Laurence Breuls) and Abigor/Air (Mathew Wilkinson) — to act as his allies. In response, Mephistopheles makes Johnny into his new Ghost Rider, offering Johnny his soul in return for defeating Blackheart. Johnny confronts Blackheart at a train station where the contract was once buried, and kills the earth elemental Gressil while the others escape. On his way out, he uses his penance stare, a supernatural ability which burns the pain of all those the victim has hurt into their soul, on a mugger, leaving the man catatonic.
The next day, Johnny wakes up in a cemetery chapel, where he meets a man called the caretaker (Sam Elliott), who seems to know all the history of the Ghost Rider. When he arrives home, Johnny finds Roxanne and tries to explain his situation, which is why he missed their date. She leaves in anger and disbelief at his tale. The police arrive and take Johnny into custody for his connection to the damage done to the city and the deaths caused by Blackheart. He transforms into Ghost Rider in the cell and escapes to track down Blackheart. He fights and kills the wind elemental Abigor, in full view of Roxanne and much of the police force. Observing the scene after obtaining the location of the contract, Blackheart realizes that Roxanne is Johnny's weakness.
Johnny goes for advice to the Caretaker, who tells him of Johnny's predecessor: Carter Slade, a Texas Ranger who was a man of honor before his greed placed him before the gallows for his misdeeds. Slade made a deal with Mephistopheles to break free; in return, Slade became the Ghost Rider who hid the contract of San Venganza. The Caretaker then warns Johnny to stay away from those whom Blackheart and the fallen angels can use against him. This advice is too late, and Johnny returns home to find that Blackheart already has Roxanne. His penance stare has no effect on the soulless demon, and Blackheart threatens to kill Roxanne if Johnny does not deliver the contract.
Johnny returns to the caretaker to get the contract. Though reminded of the consequences, Johnny asks the caretaker to trust him. The Caretaker then reveals that he is Carter Slade, having held on to his last bit of power in expectation of this moment. He informs Johnny that God is on his side because he made his deal with Mephistopheles because of love rather than greed or desperation, and shows Johnny the way to San Venganza. They ride together into the desert in Ghost Rider form. They stop a short distance from the town, and Slade gives Johnny his shotgun and the warning to "stick to the shadows" before riding away and fading away.
After killing the water elemental Wallow, the last of the Hollow, Johnny gives the contract to Blackheart. He quickly transforms into Ghost Rider in an effort to subdue Blackheart, but dawn comes and he is rendered powerless. Blackheart shrugs off the attacks and uses the contract to absorb the 1,000 souls into his body, taking the name "Legion." Legion tosses Johnny around for a bit, until Roxanne uses Johnny's discarded shotgun to separate them. After fruitlessly firing off its remaining ammunition, Johnny takes the gun and moves it into the shadows. This allows him to create a "hellfire shotgun" to blast Legion apart. Legion reforms, but Johnny moves in and uses his penance stare, made effective by the thousand souls inhabiting Legion's body, to render him catatonic. Johnny turns away from Roxanne, ashamed of his monstrous appearance, but she shows him that she is not afraid of what Johnny has become.
Mephistopheles appears and gives Johnny his soul, offering to take back the curse of the Ghost Rider. Johnny refuses, saying that he will use his power against Mephistopheles, and against all harm that comes to the innocent. Infuriated of being robbed of the power, Mephistopheles vows to make Johnny pay, to which Johnny in response recites his favorite saying: "You can't live in fear." Mephistopheles then disappears, taking Blackheart's body with him. Johnny and Roxanne share some parting words at the tree on which Johnny carved "J&R FOREVER" at the beginning of the film. Roxanne then tells Johnny that he got his second chance before sharing a final kiss with him. Johnny then rides away on his motorcycle, now a legend in his own right. The film concludes with a rendition of the song "Ghost Riders in the Sky".