Director: Mark Steven Johnson
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Eva Mendes, Wes Bentley, Donal Logue, Peter Fonda, Sam Elliott
MPAA Rating: (for horror violence and disturbing images)
Running Time: 1:54
Release Date: 2/16/07
Review by Mark Dujsik
In my comic book days, I was drawn to Ghost Rider. There was just something about a biker with a spiky leather jacket, chain, and a flaming skull with bike to match that to my adolescent mind was just, well, cool. Admittedly, I can't recall reading any of the comics, but that image was just so striking, I might have subconsciously not wanted to ruin it. Since comic movies are all the rage now, it was inevitable, and here's a big-screen adaptation of the hell's angel that is all kinds of silly. Thankfully, Ghost Rider doesn't take the material of a hero born of Satan who fights evil purely at face value, but it does take its bloated mythology and tongue-in-cheek humor too seriously to qualify as camp. What campy fun this could have been, too, but writer/director Mark Steven Johnson either misses the mark or feels some misguided need to do justice to the material. Whatever the reason, Ghost Rider earns disbelief for its semi-serious tone when it could have gone for broke and allowed us to laugh at it.
As a young man, Johnny Blaze (Matt Long) worked the carnival circuit with his father (Brett Cullen) as a motorcycle stunt team. The love of his young life Roxanne (Raquel Alessi) breaks the news that they won't be able to get married on account of her father's disapproval. Johnny decides that they should run off together the next day, but he gets doubts after reading a letter from his father's doctor about the spread of cancer. Late at night, a mysterious stranger (Peter Fonda) offers him a deal: He will make Johnny's father healthy in exchange for the kid's soul. A contract is signed in blood, and the next day, his father's healthy again. Problem is, the stranger is Mephistopheles and doesn't want the kid's dad to get in the way of their deal, so the elder Blaze dies in an accident. I believe that's called irony. Years later, Blaze is grown, played by Nicolas Cage, and a famous stunt rider. When the devil's son Blackheart (Wes Bentley) comes to earth to take over, the devil has Blaze hold up on his end of the deal to stop his power-hungry spawn. Bad timing, as Roxanne (Eva Mendes) has just come back into Blaze's life.
The movie opens with a prologue narrated by Sam Elliott, who later plays the caretaker of a cemetery where Blaze finds solace and guidance after his change, which tells the history of Ghost Riders past, primarily one who stole a list of souls from a town that figures heavily into Blackheart's plan. Apparently, he's going to use the power of the souls to take over the world, but daddy isn't a fan, hence Blaze's transformation from a jellybean-eating, monkey-loving (don't ask) celebrity into a bounty hunter for the devil. So, at night when evil's around, Blaze becomes ablaze, which melts his face into a flaming skull and leaves his clothes amazingly unsinged. The gimmick might work in the comics, but here it's quite amusing. A talking, burning skeleton with a sand-papery voice that sounds like he's gargling with salt water just doesn't make a hero worth standing behind. His special powers: twirling a chain around and having the ability to turn all the evil back on to the doer with a stare. Oh, and he rides a fiery motorcycle, too. That can go up buildings. And the chain can lasso a helicopter and pull it down to speaking distance. Right.
If fire is Ghost Rider's specialty, then his competition is Blackheart and his three demonic henchmen, who partially take the form of air, water, and earth. If you like this and other kinds of ham-fisted philosophical/theological allusions, there are plenty more here. Blaze reads Faust on his downtime, that pact between him and the devil takes place at a literal crossroads, fire rains down from the heavens, etc. It's a lot of hokum, really, and this is what Johnson plays the straightest. Pay no mind that those elemental henchmen are incredibly useless (Ghost Rider takes each of them out so quickly that they're fights shouldn't even be called fights), the idea of a fireball (instead of snowball) fight comes instantly to mind in the climax, and that, while Blaze must stitch himself up after being stabbed as Ghost Rider, there are seemingly no physical repercussions to his being repeatedly shot. Nicolas Cage gets the tortured lackadaisical attitude down right, but he's way too solemn. On the reverse end, Wes Bentley is too far gone as Blackheart. Peter Fonda finds a happy medium, hamming it up fine as the devil; if there were any scenery to chew in the Texas wasteland, he'd be chewing it.
I might sound tough on the movie, but it isn't terrible. There are just a lot of ridiculous elements at play here and not enough winking at them. Ghost Rider is potentially funny stuff, but in Johnson's hands, it's just mediocre superhero fodder.
Copyright © 2007 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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