Written & Directed by: Mark Steven Johnson
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Eva Mendes, Wes Bentley, Peter Fonda
Color, 123 minutes (Extended Cut DVD)
Rating: Extended Cut Not Rated (PG-13 Theatrical)
As a child, I was fascinated with comic books and over the last seven or eight years I've been happy, in a nostalgic sort of way, to see so many of the beloved heroes from my youth make their way to the big screen. The nostalgia is officially beginning to wear off, and my patience is nearing its end. There have been plenty of terrible comic book adaptations in this young century (Fantastic Four, Constantine, X-Men 3), but there has always seemed to be a good one somewhere right around the corner. That corner seems to be fading from view, and it's becoming increasingly difficult to tolerate the continuing onslaught of comic book crap, so, you can imagine my surprise when I didn't ooze hatred for Ghost Rider. I know, I know, I'm getting soft, right? Maybe, but Ghost Rider is a film that, in spite of all its cheesiness, has its heart in the right place, even though its skull may be on fire.
Nicolas Cage stars as Johnny Blaze, stunt rider extraordinaire, who, as a child, sold his soul to Mephistopheles (Peter Fonda), just call him Lucifer, in order to save his father from cancer. Satan, being the bastard that he is, cures Papa's illness, then goes back on his word by killing him during a motorcycle stunt. Poor little Johnny, who would have thought that you couldn't trust a guy who demands that contracts must be signed in blood. Pissed to high heaven, Johnny blazes a trail out of town on his Dad's chopper, and goes down to the crossroads, Robert Johnson style, where he's met by Satan, who tells him that he is now a Ghost Rider, kind of like the Devil's version of Boba Fett with a motorcycle in place of that cool backpack. Flash forward a decade or two, and Johnny, all grown up, does his Evel Knievel routine on a, seemingly, weekly basis. He jumps football fields and Black Hawk helicopters, somehow managing to cheat death every time. Johnny's manager (Donal Logue) is worried about him, but JB shrugs him off, choosing to spend his time eating jellybeans out of a martini glass and furthering his obsession with monkeys. All this changes when Roxanne (Eva Mendes), Johnny's ex-flame, strolls into town. She's become a hot shot reporter, and she wants an exclusive. Johnny, however, has his own exclusive ideas about Roxanne, and when he begins to make his move, Satan shows up with another interesting proposition: If Johnny destroys Blackheart (Wes Bentley), the Devil's wayward son; he can have his soul back. Johnny, apparently not willing to learn from his past mistakes, reluctantly agrees, and is transformed into a flaming skeleton, ready to do battle with the forces of Hell. It ain't exactly Faust, I know, but it'll do in a pinch.
Ghost Rider, like Blade, was never a huge success as a comic. It had its followers, of which I was not one, but it never really took off with the masses. It never had much to offer in the way of character, and existed for so long simply because it was a bit different. This all changed in the early '90's, when Todd McFarlane took the same basic idea and created a much more inventive, and interesting character in Spawn. Nonetheless, writer/director Mark Steven Johnson, who made Daredevil (another film I didn't hate), does his best with what little he has to work with. Even though the film is heavy with special effects (albeit very bad ones), he puts the crosshairs on Johnny Blaze's struggles as a person, instead of endless fight scenes. I could be giving him too much credit, the film's budget was rather small for this type of film, and having Cage as a star pretty much guarantees that he gets more face time than anyone else does, including his bony, CGI alter ego. Either way you want to look at it, you can't deny Johnson's obvious love for his material, and he essentially creates something out of nothing, which is always deserving of a little credit.
The performances are, for the most part, in earnest. Cage revels in this type of material with his usual tics and flaring of the eyes. He's quite possibly the most neurotic superhero to grace the big screen. Adding a dash of H.I. McDunnough from Raising Arizona here, a pinch of Sailor Ripley from Wild at Heart there, and a little bit of Dubya's voice pattern to top it all off, Cage has fun, and it's hard to hold it against him. Eva Mendes fulfills the cleavage requirements quite nicely, but she does her best to become more than the love interest/damsel in distress. Fonda's Mephistopheles isn't necessarily a man of wealth and taste, nor his menacing or devious in any particular way, but I can see where Johnson thought it would be clever to feature Fonda in another motorcycle movie, though we all know that of the Easy Rider crowd, Dennis Hopper would have ate this shit up. The biggest problem comes in Bentley (the kid with a video camera in American Beauty) as Blackheart. He doesn't do much of anything except for bitching about how he won't "fall" like his father did. For the Antichrist, he's a bit of a pantywaist. He's followed around by a group of minions who look a bit like Depeche Mode with worse makeup. Sam Elliott, who narrates the film, provides his usual reliably grizzled support as a wiseass gravedigger who knows more than he probably should. The films real star, however, is gifted Aussie cinematographer Russell Boyd (Master and Commander). He shoots the daylight scenes like a western, and then, when it's dark, he bathes the screen in deep, dark blues that accentuate the flames that emanate from Ghost Rider's body. He creates a moody atmosphere, and, even though the special effects let him down, he treats the more ghoulish imagery seriously, and while it's not exactly on a par with Fuseli, it is a hell of a lot more than what this material deserves.
Ghost Rider, despite the bad press, is not a terrible film. The special effects would seem more at home in a direct to DVD release, and the fight scenes are nothing new, but Johnson makes up for this by bringing the characters to the forefront, and allowing them some room to breathe. He gives Mendes a nice Linda Hamilton moment, and Cage does his best Tom Joad material at the end, and you go through the motions and you can laugh it off, but you can't hold it against them, it is just a comic book adaptation after all. I mean, what should I do? Should I complain about the dialogue being corny? Of course the dialogue is corny here, but Sam Raimi has worked with Oscar winners and Pulitzer Prize recipients throughout the Spider-Man trilogy, and he hasn't done much better either. Ghost Rider is a film of modest ambitions, and because of that, it's not a complete failure. Did I enjoy it? Not necessarily. Did I hate it? No, certainly not. Am I going to lose sleep because I regret spending two hours of my life on it? Not at all. Sue me.