Movie Review: Ghost Rider
by Paul Schultz
Published: February 18, 2007
There's something inherently wrong about a movie that features rad hogs, and
has Peter Fonda ("Easy Rider") in it, but never the twain shall meet. Ditto for a film who's sustained tension is seeing whether Eva Mendes will pop out of her blouse. Okay, that might not be such a bad thing, on the face of it, but surely that wasn't the suspense the makers of "Ghost Rider" were burning for. Couple this with the fact the movie was shielded from reviewers until the night before it's opening, and you have all the ingredients for an unholy cinematic flame-out.
As a long-time fan of the Marvel Comics character upon which this film is
based, I was intrigued by the opening, which gave a nod to the Carter Slade
Western-themed early incarnation of Ghost Rider. Unfortunately, the
"coolness" factor would not be sustained, as the story moved from flaming hoof prints to the origins of Johnny Blaze's turn as the motorcycle-riding Spirit of Vengeance.
A teenage Blaze (Matt Long) and his father (Brett Cullen) are daredevil stunt cyclists for traveling carnival shows. Johnny sees an opportunity to leave this life behind by running off with his girlfriend Roxanne Simpson (Raquel Alessi). Plans change when the young Blaze discovers his dad is afflicted with cancer. A mysterious stranger (Fonda) appears to offer Johnny a remedy for his father's health crisis. Subsequently, Johnny enters into a rather ill-advised contract with the demon Mephistopheles -- his father won't die from cancer in exchange for Johnny's soul.
Mephistopheles technically keeps his end of the bargain, though not in any way satisfactory to Johnny's wishes. Still, a deal's a deal, and we
fast-forward to an older Blaze (Nicholas Cage, "World Trade Center")
who has left Roxanne behind -- for her own protection -- and who engages in one death-defying stunt after another, much to the chagrin of his roadie Mack (Donal Logue, "Confidence").
Johnny Blaze (Nicholas Cage) defies death with
increasingly riskier stunts. © 2007 Columbia Pictures
Reportedly, Cage tinkered with Mark Steven Johnson's ("Daredevil") script at this point, turning Johnny into a fellow who likes to chill to Carpenters songs and eat jellybeans out of martini
glasses. The original plan was to have Johnny be a Jack Daniels-drinking,
chain-smoking bad ass. If I knew I had sold my soul to the Devil, I'm pretty certain I'd be hitting the bottle hard, with no second thoughts. And screw the Carpenters... I'd be getting all moody to Linkin Park.
I might as well mention at this point that the dialogue Johnson dreams up is stilted and, most of the time, downright idiotic. You think I'm kidding? Just picture Mack trying to have a conversation with Johnny at his digs, with the stereo playing his music of choice. Johnny gets all testy and interrupts Mack with, "Dude, you're steppin' on Karen!" Need I say more?
Of course, Mack is trying to talk Johnny out of yet another splatter-worthy
stunt, as if witnessing him drinking coffee directly out of the pot doesn't clue
him in that the guy is indestructible. Johnny, for his part, knows he can't die while the Devil owns his soul, and cheerily executes a succession of
horrifyingly dangerous stunts. Before one such endeavor, he bumps into old
flame Roxanne (Mendes, "Hitch"), who's now a television reporter and lookin' mighty fly. She interviews him, then doesn't even stay for the event, prompting Johnny to calmly traverse over six Blackhawk helicopter before chasing her down on the highway to ask her to dinner.
He blows her off, but he's got a really good excuse for not
showing. See, good ol' Mephistopheles has finally decided to call in his
contract, and turns poor Johnny into a literal Hell's angel. When the sun
goes down, and Johnny is in the presence of evil, his skull goes aflame -- no
drugs required -- and his chopper goes through an episode of Extreme Makeover: The Hellfire Edition. Seems the demon has a wayward son named Blackheart (Wes Bentley, "The Four Feathers")
who is after some contract that houses a thousand souls in it.
The plot devolves from here on out, and it's barely worth explaining. After
Blackheart and his three elemental cronies appeared, I sensed the movie was headed downhill, and I was right. Johnny meets an enigmatic caretaker (Sam Elliott, "Hulk") who seems to know an awful lot about his new alter ego, and guides him in his new job as the Devil's bounty hunter.
"The last time I got help from a stranger didn't pan
out too well," Blaze tells the caretaker (Sam Elliott).
© 2007 Columbia Pictures
Any attempt at fleshing out the thin characterizations is tossed at this
point, and the special effects take over. Sometimes they are spectacular,
but mostly they are cheesy. My favorite occurs the first time Johnny turns
into the Ghost Rider, and tears out of town toward a radar-wielding trooper. As the gauge jumps past 200 MPH, you see a streak of fire reflected in the ever-widening eyes of the cop. That was cool.
The first transformation is agonizing, as Blaze's face slowly disintegrates
into a flaming skull. Apparently once Johnny embraces this metamorphosis,
the process becomes less painful and more instantaneous. Among his
accoutrements is a super-long bike chain, which is the only nod to the Daniel Ketch incarnation of the character that debuted in comic book form in the '90's.
Blackheart was uninteresting as a villain, and I'm not sure if that's
Bentley's fault or the script's. Roxanne's character was not fully
realized, so you were never really sure why she kept going after Johnny when he began to go all weird. Props to casting Alessi as the young Roxanne, because she was a complete ringer for Mendes. Anti-props to casting Long, who neither looks like Cage, nor can act out of a paper bag, from what I could tell.
Ultimately, the effects used to create the Ghost Rider left me unconvinced. The head afire was kind of cool, but the physique and
mannerisms did not match those of Cage's. Thus, I was always aware I was
looking at a prop. I couldn't escape the thought as I watched Cage's
portrayal that I was glad he didn't do Superman, because I just couldn't see
it. The near-total lack of logic was hard to get past, as well. An example would be the caretaker saying that demons couldn't step on hallowed
ground, then seeing Blackheart able to confront the priest in the church for the contract.
The latter half played out like a video game, and perhaps the
character will have more success in that arena, as concurrent with the film are releases for PlayStation 2 and Game Boy Advance. Also available is a novelization of the movie by Greg Cox, and soundtrack score by Christopher Young.
I do have to give the movie credit for getting the origin mostly right,
excluding Cage's "enhancements". I just wish there had been a worthy story that had sprung forth from this framework. Alas, this "Ghost Rider" makes for a less-than-enjoyable trip.
Previews: The Invisible, Fantastic
Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, Live Free or Die
Hard, Spider-Man 3