Ghost Rider (2007)

Marc Calderaro

This script takes generic archetypes and applies them to specific situations only by the cheapest of character-development techniques.

Ghost Rider

Director: Mark Steven Johnson
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Jon Voight, Wes Bentley, Eva Mendes, Matt Long, Sam Elliott, Peter Fonda, Donal Logue
MPAA rating: PG-13
Studio: Columbia Pictures
First date: 2007

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.


To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less

Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity. This is the history of the seminal new wave group

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

Keep reading... Show less

Barry Lyndon suggests that all violence—wars, duels, boxing, and the like—is nothing more than subterfuge for masculine insecurities and romantic adolescent notions, which in many ways come down to one and the same thing.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) crystalizes a rather nocturnal view of heterosexual, white masculinity that pervades much of Stanley Kubrick's films: after slithering from the primordial slime, we jockey for position in ceaseless turf wars over land, money, and women. Those wielding the largest bone/weapon claim the spoils. Despite our self-delusions about transcending our simian stirrings through our advanced technology and knowledge, we remain mired in our ancestral origins of brute force and domination—brilliantly condensed by Kubrick in one of the most famous cuts in cinematic history: a twirling bone ascends into the air only to cut to a graphic match of a space station. Ancient and modern technology collapse into a common denominator of possession, violence, and war.

Keep reading... Show less

This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Keep reading... Show less

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow shines on her impressive interpretation of Fontella Bass' classic track "Rescue Me".

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow pays tribute to the classic Chicago label Chess Records on her new album Playing Chess, which was produced by Steve Greenberg, Mike Mangini, and the legendary Betty Wright. Unlike many covers records, LeGrow and her team of musicians aimed to make new artistic statements with these songs as they stripped down the arrangements to feature leaner and modern interpretations. The clean and unfussy sound allows LeGrow's superb voice to have more room to roam. Meanwhile, these classic tunes take on new life when shown through LeGrow's lens.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.