Though it might not seem so at first glance, Ghost Rider is an exceptional comic-book character translation to film. Unlike other comic properties like Watchmen or Sandman, the idea of a Ghost Rider movie is organically plausible. The serial storylines were never able to eclipse the painfully iconic image of a flaming skeleton, dressed in leather, riding a motorcycle – which is actually good for filmmakers. Not having to live up to a Dark Knight Returns or a “Phoenix Saga” means that fewer comic fans anticipate the plot and direction of the film, giving screenwriters more freedom with the character and story.
Mark Steven Johnson’s second comic adaptation (Daredevil being the first) takes great liberties with the Ghost Rider premise, but is able to compose a coherent film without betraying the central story: a naïve, young stunt-cyclist, Johnny Blaze (Nicholas Cage), sells his soul to the devil. Since this unholy pact, Blaze becomes a man so afraid of Mephistopheles (Peter Fonda) calling on him, that he barely skirts death with each new Knievel stunt, and gorges himself on jellybeans and the Carpenters (alcohol and hard music would just bait the devil more). And when Mephistopheles’ son, Blackheart (Wes Bentley), decides to usurp his father and claim Hell as his own, Blaze is called upon to become the devil’s bounty hunter, the film’s titular hero. But sadly, sometimes the audience will ask for more than a just cogent plot.
When released in theaters, Ghost Rider didn’t fare too well with critics, and the Uwe-Boll-esque critical backlash is widely known. So well known, in fact, it garnered a few minutes of response from Johnson on the DVD’s commentary track:
Sometimes you gotta say “Fuck the critics,” and “Fuck all the haters,” … It’s entertainment … It’s about fun, and sometimes critics forget that … I don’t see Helen Mirren’s name in the credits … It’s a movie about a guy whose head goes on fire and rides a hellcycle … You can’t make films for critics; you kill yourself. I purposefully made this movie pop art…
In many ways, what Johnson says is true: the wall between “high art” and “low art” is not easily broken down. And just because a film aims for substance doesn’t mean it’s inherently better / worse or more / less entertaining than a non-significant one. However, Johnson’s logic breaks down because he doesn’t take into account that critics understand this filmmaker’s quandary. Believe or not, the majority of the critical world sees that holding “entertainment-based” films like Kickin’ It Old Skool to the same standards as, for example, this past year’s critical darling, Pan’s Labyrinth. This is terribly unfair and unenlightened. Blindly assaulting a film for any idea that reinforces the pedestal of value is presumptuous, elitist, and egocentric. Case in point, Ebert & Roeper have seemingly changed their iconic thumb-scale recently as Jackass 2 was given two thumbs up – not because of the “quality” of the film, but more because the film is exactly what it advertises (Roeper’s homoerotic-documentary slant notwithstanding). Although here and there, a critic will unapologetically bash a “lighter” film, for the most part, we are understanding, fun-loving, head-goes-on-fire-enjoying people.
It is with this contextualized, critical eye that I can say, loudly and proudly: Ghost Rider is awful. It’s not because of a deficiency of substance or a hatred of fun. Pulp Fiction is pop-art obsessed and Jaws is merely about a shark that rips people in half, but neither of these excuses negate their critical success. Ghost Rider, on the other hand, is yet-another studio attempt at meaningless drivel, and according to the box office reports ($116 million domestically), it was a successful one.
The script is the worst kind of pander. It takes generic archetypes and applies them to specific situations only by the cheapest of character-development techniques. At one point, Blaze reads aloud from a book about spiritual possession, “The host can gain control of the possessing spirit through concentration on, and manipulation of, the fire element that exists within man.” He then stands up and says, “I am speaking to the fire element in me; give me control over the possessing spirit.” That isn’t entertaining; it’s patronizing.
Additionally, the fight sequences are brief and lackluster. A film like this can forgive a shoddy script, but can’t forgive boring action. All of Ghost Rider’s encounters with the four villains in the film last no more than two punches. In the commentary, Johnson admits the reason, citing “every shot of Ghost Rider is a special effects shot,” so there can only be so many shots of him in the film. Shouldn’t that kind of thing be built into the budget? Maybe we’ve been spoiled by the recent high-budgeted comic-book films, but if your lead character is 50 percent CGI, that’s going to seriously affect your funds-allocation – and that’s something that can’t be compromised if you want to make a successful film.
Though Sam Elliott, Nicholas Cage, Wes Bentley, Eva Mendes and a wonderful Donal Logue all try to hold this shipwreck above water, the irreparable hull breach is in the lack of jollification. Entertainment should be abounding, not sparse. Johnson’s script confuses the director’s own coolness with the audience’s fun – a fatal error. Yes, the Ghost Rider transformation scene looks great, but once he’s transformed, he does little more than quip.
There are times when we critics are too stern. We can forget the big picture and let the little guy have it for no reason other than self-satisfaction. This is not one of those times. The movie’s just no good.