Long ago and oh so far away,
I fell in love with you before the second show.
Your guitar, it sounds so sweet and clear,
But you’re not really here,
It’s just the radio.
— Carpenters, “Superstar”
“It is said the West was built on legends,” intones Sam Elliott. Yeah and what else is new? The start of Ghost Rider lays out just how dull the rest of it will be. According to the Elliott’s Caretaker, the Ghost Rider, also known as the Devil’s Bounty Hunter, isn’t precisely pleased with his lot. “Every generation has one,” the Caretaker asserts, “cursed, some damned soul.” And now, not only is he beleaguered by Mephistopheles’ incessant demands, but also by this big-screen ignominy.
Selling your soul is never a good idea, but Johnny Blaze (played as a teenager by Matt Long) does so in an especially silly way. A motorcycle stunt rider of the Evel Knievel sort, Johnny performs at carnivals with his dad Bart (Brett Cullen). When he learns his dad is dying of cancer, the kid is upset, in part because it means he can’t abandon Bart and the show to run off with his girlfriend Roxanne (Raquel Alessi). When the Devil (Peter Fonda, in a bit of stunty casting, though he doesn’t ride a bike) shows up with a “deal,” Johnny says okay, drops his blood on the contract, and that appears to be that.
Except that it’s not. More convolutions follow, mostly having to do with Johnny feeling miserable and put-upon and resentful. He grows up to be a fiercely lean Nicolas Cage, ritually engaging in spectacular jumps — dozens of semi cabs, six Black Hawk helicopters (unimaginatively introduced by ” Ride of the Valkyries”) — that end in triumph or apparent tragedy that turns into triumph (what looks like a broken neck is sort of not). His crew chief, Mack (Donal Logue), worries that his boss is reading books about religious rituals and demons (featuring old-timey illustrations of the sort that Morgan Freeman perused in Seven), refusing to drink beers with the guys, and imbibing red and yellow jellybeans by the martini-glass-full. On top of all that, the Carpenters are his favorite band: he plays them before every show, his attention rapt: “You’re stepping on Karen!” he yells at the inadvertently yappy Mack).
While Mack marvels at Johnny’s ceaseless, uncanny survival, you know it’s a function of his contract. The Devil keeps him alive until he needs his bounty hunter, that is, when a gang of bad souls, led kohl-eyed Blackheart (Wes Bentley), ascends to earth in order to track down some contract that will grant them access to a bunch of other bad souls. It’s a little mumbly and uninteresting, but suffice it to say that the story at this point allows for Johnny’s transformation into the Rider — leather-jacket and skull face a-blazing.
The fact that Blackheart is Mephistopheles’ mightily rebellious son might suggest some father-son parallels to Johnny and Bart, but that’s not precisely the film’s focus. In fact, nothing is much a focus, except maybe the return of Roxanne (now Eva Mendes). A reporter for a show called On Scene, she arrives at one of Johnny’s stunts — dressed in a white, not quite angelic, dress — to request an interview. Both realize they’ve missed each other deeply, even as both flash back to the moment when, comprehending the full-on bad-ideaness of his contract, Johnny abandoned Roxy. He feels guilty, she feels aggrieved, but they’re comic book characters, after all. Though she has a moment of thinking her dad was right about Johnny way back when (“You’re just a carny!”), she’s eventually convinced that his ludicrous excuse (he’s the Devil’s Bounty Hunter) is legit when she sees him in action, shot a million times by cops while he’s actually trying to do his job, namely, exact vengeance on villains.
Roxy apparently doesn’t notice the inanity of this action, but it’s acutely visible. While comic book mythologies are notoriously well worked-out, meticulously articulating legacies, motives, derivations, and allusions, the business of the movie Ghost Rider is decidedly slack. Some of this might be chalked up to lawnmower-like editing that makes it hard to guess which moment connects to another or why you should care. And part is a function of the feeble effects: an excess of watery-looking flames, unconvincing bike tricks, and tiresome pronouncements about retribution and justice.
As the Caretaker has it, the legend of the Ghost Rider is connected to and resulting from any number of other legends (the business about “the West” must be clearer in the comic books than it is here). But the movie settles for cursory, disconnected allusions that don’t exactly build character (Cage does some more Elvis impersonating, Mendes shows some lovely cleavage, and Elliott looks plenty leathery) or suggest much in the way of a grand comic-book-style mythology. Yes, the Rider and the Caretakers spend time in a cemetery while narrating backstory (someone outran the Devil and mucked up the bounty hunting enterprise) and yes, Johnny’s a little dismayed by having to be on fire every night.
Still, the particulars of his gift/curse are never compelling. He’s got access to a bad guy’s history of destruction, meaning that he can hit him up with a Stare of Penance (literally, he commands, “Look into my eyes,” like Dracula used to), by which he sucks out all the innocents who have suffered at he villain’s hands and turns back their pain on said villain. But the actual pain part is just silly, a mostly blurry, vaguely fiery, utterly un-menacing montage of screaming, collapsing faces. This is the Ghost Rider’s big trick, hardly the stuff of legends.