A film review by Craig J. Koban
2007, PG-13, 112 mins.
Nicolas Cage: Johnny Blaze/Ghost Rider
/ Eva Mendes: Roxanne / Peter Fonda:
Written and Directed by
Mark Steven Johnson /
Based on the Marvel comics character
Roy Thomas, Gary Friedrich and Mike Ploog
Nicolas Cage: Johnny Blaze/Ghost Rider / Eva Mendes: Roxanne / Peter Fonda: Mephistopheles / Wes Bentley: Blackheart
Written and Directed by Mark Steven Johnson /
Based on the Marvel comics character created by Roy Thomas, Gary Friedrich and Mike Ploog
If I were a redneck bit of trailer park trash – and I could be a super hero – then I would most assuredly be Ghost Rider.
Honestly, what is cooler than a leather clad vigilante that wears studded leather, has a flaming skull for a head, has the abilities to make people relive the pain they have caused others just by looking at them, and has a bike that is constantly purged by the flames of hell? Like some sort of perverted entity from a sadistic S&M club, Ghost Rider certainly can take top honors as one of the oddest of all comic book characters. No other hero can take claim to looking like he should have Grand Pooba status at any Hell’s Angel’s rally.
I grew up with comics and discovered Ghost Rider in my early teens as he graced to pages of Marvel magazines. He certainly appeased to my then rebellious spirit. Superman wore red and blue tights and was a poster boy for being a good Samaritan. Spider-man was a troubled teen that had hard times scoring with the love of his life. Batman was a whacked out neurotic that carried a life-long curse of wanting to gain vengeance. Ghost Rider's dilemma with existing was more problematic and dare I say – at least to a 13-year-old’s eyes – cooler. He made a bad deal with the devil himself and now had to use his powers to fight his cause. Now that is a curse that most super heroes never had to bare.
To be sure, this peculiar creation of Roy Thomas, Gary Friedrich and Mike Ploog from the 1970’s could aptly be described as one of Marvel’s B-entries. GHOST RIDER made his presence felt his own comic in 1973 and it ran for ten years. The character never attained any semblance of longevity or serious popularity that would eclipse other Marvel elite. However, the character emerged in the early 1990’s in a newly revamped series and he attained short-term popularity that rivaled that of other staple characters. Nevertheless, Ghost Rider – along with the Blades of the Marvel universe – always seemed to stand on the outside of mainstream respectability by comic enthusiasts. For what it's worth, he was a digestible character in forgettable stories.
The new film adaptation of GHOST RIDER feels much in the same vein. Largely inspired by the origin story of the 1970’s version and maintaining some elements of the more respected 1990’s incarnation, GHOST RIDER reveals itself to be perhaps too silly and preposterous to be taken literally on the silver screen. It can be best said that what works on the panels of comic book pages does not necessarily work in a live action feature film. Furthermore, when you have a character that taps deep in Faustian legend and is – essentially – a hell spawn – should the film not be…well…more tense and scary? If anything, GHOST RIDER takes itself a bit too seriously at times and feels like it was aimed only at prepubescent boys.
Yes…I know…implausibility is the name of the game when it comes to super hero films. Comic book characters not only cross over chasms of incredulity…they leap over them at single bounds. I am willing to accept an alien from another planet that has immortal powers and stands for truth, justice, and the American way. I am willing to accept a college student that is bitten by a radioactive spider and subsequently is granted all powers of an arachnid. And…yes…I am willing to accept millionaires that dress up like winged creatures to strike fear into the hearts of criminals because a crook once gunned down his parents. Honestly…I do.
However, the sight of Ghost Rider on screen is kind of ridiculous, even if – at least initially – he looks really, really cool. I guess my analytical adult mind also started to play tricks on me when I began asking myself questions like how does his leather coat not catch on fire from the flames from his head and hands and how does a man that is a walking skeleton fight crime incognito and if you were spawned from Satan himself, why wouldn’t you be invulnerable? Perhaps the latter is one of the negligible aspects of the character: there is no sense of danger in this monster being defeated. Oh wait, he can only be himself at night, like a werewolf, and by day he’s just a down on his luck motorcycle stuntman. His kryptonite is daylight…and the love for another woman, which his enemies use against him. Note to all super heroes: Spider-man had it right in his first film – if you have a main squeeze, then the bad guys will use it against you at some point.
The story follows the stereotypical threads of most comic book origin stories (i.e.: introduce us to the alter ego, show life altering event that changes him into a super hero, introduce love interest and villains, blah, blah, blah). As the film opens a teenage Johnny Blaze (played as an adult by Nicolas Cage) is mentoring under his father as a motorcycle stunt man. His dad has cancer and will die soon. Soon, Johnny meets a stranger who turns out to be the devil (played rather serendipitously by former motorcycle screen rebel, Peter Fonda). The Devil makes him a deal: he will save his dad’s life if Johnny gives him his soul. Needless to say, the devil tricks him into signing the contract (Johnny should have had a lawyer present) and his dad is cured, only to die later in a horrible stunt accident. Johnny is mighty p-oed, but the Devil explains that he would only save his dad from cancer. That wacky devil, you just can’t trust him.
Anyhoo’, Satan tells Johnny that – in the future – he will “call on him” to return the favour. Johnny grows up to become a pseudo-Evil Knievel that has a penchant for escaping death no matter how terrible the crash he’s involved in. How does he do so? Well, the devil does own his soul. However, for several years Mephistopheles has not bothered Johnny, but when his own flesh and blood, Blackheart (Wes Bentley) decides to comes to earth to take it over and rule it…or something…Satan makes Johnny turn into Ghost Rider by night and gives him a new contract: defeat his son and his evil minions and he will tear up his contract and debt for good. Things get complicated even more when Johnny meets up with his old flame, Roxanne (the irreproachably fetching Eva Mendes) who – go figure – has a hard time dealing with the fact that Johnny does not own his soul anymore. Oh, but he does still have one thing, as uttered by Cage in the film’s most unintentionally hilarious line, “The Devil’s got my soul, but he does not own my spirit!”
And the award for "Best PATCH ADAMS Motivational throw-way line" goes to…
Now, it would seem that my review thus far has be less-than glowing. For the record, there are elements of GHOST RIDER that are kind of cheesy, innocuous fun. Blaze’s first transformation has creates a modest level of build-up and awe and the visual effects creating the creature – albeit not state-of-the art – are decent and flashy enough. I also liked Peter Fonda as Satan himself, who plays him with the necessary level of chilly, stone cold conviction. Sam Elliot is also good in his two-part role as voice over narrator (who could be on a short list alongside Morgan Freedman as best voice over actors working today) and a literal character that brings the theatrical ludicrousness of the film down to earth with the scenes he’s involved in.
Yet, when balancing out the good with the bad, the former does not out distance the latter. GHOST RIDER’s story is perfunctory by comic book origin standards and nothing really interesting happens during it. There is very little tension or conflict in the film, especially when all of the characters, good and bad, seem indestructible. Ghost Rider himself – besides looking supremely cool – is arguably the least intriguing of the recent screen comic heroes. Aside from his flaming skull and gnarly motorcycle, he’s all flash and no substance. He’s a walking special effect and not much of a character.
This begs the question as to why this film would need Nicolas Cage – one of the best actors of his generation – in it when his alter ego is pretty bland as well. Maybe because Cage is a self-professed comic book geek in real life (he has a tattoo of the character on his arm and he even took his last name from another Marvel B-hero). Unfortunately, a love of a particular entertainment medium should not automatically make it okay for a respected actor to sign on to be in a mediocre film. Eva Mendes also has very little else to do in the film, other than to be Blaze’s routine, paint-by-numbers love interest, look shocked and surprised when she finds out his real identity, and to be the victim of a kidnapping to propel the film into a final third act. For what it’s worth, Mendes is incredible to look act, but it's sure difficult to pay attention to anything north of her low cut shirts and wonderbra-enhanced facade. Dang, those things are distracting.
If one uses a relative frame of reference instead of a universal rubric, then GHOST RIDER simply does not hold up favorably to the best of the recent crop of great comic book films, like SPIDER-MAN 2, HULK, X-MEN 2, BATMAN BEGINS, and V FOR VENDETTA. It certainly is not the hellish train wreck worthy of future Razzie nominations that I was lead to believe (it attains a level of giddy, asinine fun and some of the action scenes are kinetic and spirited), and the story maintains a level of respectable faithfulness to the comic (largely in part to written/director Mark Steven Johnson, a comic book nut and director of 2003’s very underrated DAREDEVIL). Yet, the film’s story is clunky, some of the individual performances are wooden, and – in the long run – you can only get so much dramatic interest derived from a guy that runs around with a skull on fire. Oh, the film did teach me one valuable lesson: if you make a pact with the devil to sell your soul to save a loved one, read the fine print, for God’s sake!