You can see what Ghost Rider is trying to do. It’s right there in between all the comic book movie clichés and formulaic action picture trappings. Indeed, if it weren’t for an apparent industry mandate that every funny page crime fighter has to be turned into a mainstream movie icon, star Nicholas Cage and writer/director Mark Steven Johnson could have helmed a really inventive take on the unusual Marvel character. Unfortunately, studio interference is evident throughout this ultimately semi-successful effort, from the casting of Eva “Mediocre” Mendez as Cage’s love interest to the last act showdown drawn directly from the Big Book of Popcorn Film Flash. Instead of staying with character quirk and individual development, we end up with something that’s more eye candy than evocative.
The story starts when young Johnny Blaze discovers his stunt man/daredevil dad is dying from cancer. Hoping to save his life, he makes a deal with a sinister stranger that requires an oath in blood. Naturally, the contract backfires, and Blaze discovers he is indentured to the Devil. He will forever be known as Ghost Rider, a fiery skeletal figure riding a menacing motorcycle. As the bounty hunter for the underworld, his job is to return damned souls to their place of eternal unrest. When Blackheart, Lucifer’s love child, goes after a mythic parchment containing 1000 damned souls, it is up to our fire-drenched anti-hero to stop him. Along the way, he must reconnect with his former fling Roxanne, and discover the secret identify of the kind-hearted cemetery caretaker who seems to know a great deal about the entire Ghost Rider lore.
Granted, it’s a pretty dumb premise for a pen and ink champion. Without the context of the comic, its customary attention to origin detail and backstory characterization, we are left filling in a lot of blanks on our own. Unfortunately, Cage isn’t about to help. Instead, he packs his performance with the kind of eccentricities and observable oddities that, at one time, established his thespian credentials (see: Vampire’s Kiss or Peggy Sue Got Married). His interpretation of Johnny Blaze involves jelly beans instead of beer, the Carpenters instead of anything remotely rock and roll, and a goofy shyness in place of disturbed bravado. It’s an interesting set of choices which, sadly, have very little to do with the actual comic the character came from. A brief perusal of the original story is far more mystical, dealing with demons, the ‘Spirit of Vengeance’, and a great deal of supernatural spectacle.
This Ghost Rider could be easily categorized as the “user friendly” version of the icon, a far more approachable (and valiant) entity than the one first conceived. There is tons of talk, all throughout the rather simplistic script, of Johnny’s desire from “a second chance” and the ability to redeem his soul-selling decision, and Cage never overemphasizes the crime fighting/payback element of the man-monster. It’s clearly a cop out, a decision designed to make the Rider more stoic than scary, as well as more personally palatable to a mainstream audience. Similarly, the casting of Eva Mendez is truly a demographically demanded decision. She’s not bad here – in fact, there are moments when she overcomes her inherent flatness to show some real emotional depth. But alongside Cage, whose like ionized idiosyncrasy, she’s nothing more than adolescent fantasy fodder.
The rest of the cast should be commended for making the most out of what is standard fire and brimstone balderdash. Wes Bentley, who comes across as a Goth kid unhappy over his allowance, makes for a vague and uninteresting Blackheart, while Peter Fonda’s Satan is more acid casualty than fallen angel. Still, both do a decent job of playing off Cage, and countermand a lot of the stock malevolence they have to portray. As Blaze’s manager and sidekick, Donal Logue is lost. Since the jokes he’s given are beyond bad, he keeps tossing in line readings that seem pulled from another performance. Similarly, Sam Elliot’s caretaker is left over from The Big Lebowski, his drawl so derivative now that you keep waiting for him to poke some cows or ‘get along’ a few doogies. Taken in conjunction with Mark Steven Johnson’s journeyman directing, filled with wickedly wide shots that hope to instill scope into this otherwise small storyline, everything is technically proficient.
When matched against the amazing special effects, however, their adeptness is barely impressive. Ghost Rider is indeed a highly proficient product of the post-millennial reliance on computer technology, and his fiery image makes a definite impression. This is especially true when Blaze first discovers his destiny, and races down a local side street, shop canopies and parking meters melting under his inferno-like presence. Equally stunning is the skyscraper fight, where a completely possessed Blaze rides right up the side of the glass building’s façade. Sure, you’ve see the sequence a hundred times (thanks to a trailer that gave away most of the movie’s visual magic), but within the context of the story, it still scores significant points. The evil elements are not so well done. Both Satan and Blackheart look like snaggle-toothed sea creatures instead of something more sacrilegious, and last act arrival of hundreds of ‘lost souls’ is like a cross between Raiders of the Lost Ark and the minions from Constantine.
Yet it’s the departures from the original source material, along with the lack of sufficient character support, that has really divided movie fans. Many could forgive the personal plot holes for the amazing amount of visual finesse on hand. But those hoping that the newly released Extended Edition DVD would cast some light on shallower subjects will sadly be left searching. There is some intriguing material reinserted into the film – more moments between a young Blaze and his dad, Roxanne having to deal with the police – but for the most part, the new information is as ambiguous as what is already on the screen. Why it’s taken Blackheart this long to defy his father, why Satan waited several years before tapping Blaze’s Rider potential – heck, the whole reason behind the character’s odd choice of refreshment and music would have been nice. Instead, it’s more focus group falderal offered as additional insight.
In the end, such a strategy is what really undermines Ghost Rider. Without all the necessary Hollywood hokum, absent the sequences suggested by past comic book movies (this film frequently feels like a production from a parallel universe in its ridiculous amount of referencing), this could have been something strong. Not necessarily popular or marketable, but a unique take on material mostly unknown to the movie going public. It also suggests that the proposed Nicholas Cage/Tim Burton Superman may not have been such a bad idea after all. From a filmmaking perspective, no one understands the vastness of visuals better than the off-kilter ex-animator. And via his intriguing take on Johnny Blaze, Cage continues to argue that he has uncultivated acting chops just waiting to be exploited. Those who’ve dismissed this movie outright are dead wrong. But there are aspects here that truly make it hard to embrace. It’s a dichotomy that ultimately dooms this attempted trail blazer.