On Ghost Rider

Ghost Rider isn’t the worst film I have ever seen, but neither is it the greatest either. According to the IGN review:

After years in development hell, the Marvel Comics anti-hero Ghost Rider has finally roared onto the silver screen. Nicolas Cage stars opposite Eva Mendes, Peter Fonda, Wes Bentley, Sam Elliott and Donal Logue. Daredevil helmer Mark Steven Johnson wrote and directed the film for Sony Pictures.

The film opens with a teenage Johnny Blaze (Matt Long, who looks nothing like Cage), the son of Evel Knievel-like motorcycle stuntman Barton Blaze. When his chain-smoking dad appears doomed from lung cancer, he is visited by a mysterious man in black who, of course, turns out to be the demonic Mephistopheles (Fonda). Quicker than you can say “hellfire and damnation,” Johnny has inadvertently sold his soul to the devil.

Johnny will become the devil’s bounty hunter, sent to collect those who have sold their souls, but somehow welched on their end of the bargain. A marked man, Johnny runs away from home, leaving behind his beloved sweetheart Roxanne (Raquel Alessi, who looks something like Eva Mendes).

Flash forward a decade or so and Johnny Blaze (a bewigged Cage) has surpassed his dad as the premiere motorcycle stunt rider, a showman with NASCAR-style appeal whose amazing stunts would kill most riders. It’s not so much that he has a death wish, but that he wants to see if he can control his fate. If he can then the devil doesn’t have a hold on him after all. Alas, Johnny defies death because he is earmarked by evil for a special purpose and can’t escape his fate that easily.

Johnny is eventually reunited with Roxanne (Mendes), who is now a TV reporter (what is it with every comic book character having a love interest who is a reporter?!). She interviews Johnny, but all he wants is to win her back. No sooner does she relent than fate throws Johnny a fiery curveball.

Mephistopheles reappears to inform Johnny that his time as the latest incarnation of the Ghost Rider has finally come. Transformed into a fiery skeleton in black leather who races off on his Hellcycle to collect the devil’s due, Ghost Rider is more of a force than a personality. He is largely monosyllabic and single-minded, battling demons while also protecting the innocent from evildoers. His best trick is the Penance Stare, which allows evildoers to revisit and feel the pain caused by all the sins they have ever committed.

Ghost Rider finds himself battling Blackheart (Bentley), the rebellious son of Mephistopheles who is aided by a posse of elemental demons. Blackheart is after a certain contract that a 19th century Ghost Rider fled with and hid. This contract is for the twisted souls of a particularly nasty frontier town. If Blackheart can get their souls then his power will increase tenfold (or more, but who’s doing the math?). The film ends with a western-style showdown in the ghost town.

While not quite the train wreck that Elektra was, Ghost Rider is not one of Marvel’s better movies. And it has nothing to do with the quality of the special effects, which look better in motion than they do in still photos (the effects are on par with The Mummy films and LXG). No, Ghost Rider fails for the same reason every bad movie does: poor storytelling and bad acting.

Cage clearly gives the role his all, and he is the best thing in the film. He grounds it in reality and gives his character personality and, ironically, soul. Mendes, however, is wooden and, looks aside, bland. Her performance as a TV journalist is about as convincing as Denise Richards’ turn as a nuclear scientist in The World is Not Enough. There are plenty of unintentional chuckles generated by Roxanne running around in her low-cut, cleavage-heaving shirts and crying, “Johnny!”

Fonda does what he can with the thankless role of the devil, playing him as the same smooth-talking gentleman we’ve seen in other films. And while Sam Elliott may be playing the umpteenth variation of his grizzled cowboy persona, he plays the film’s “Basil Exposition” role with conviction.

Bentley, however, delivers a one-note, sleepwalking performance. His knitted brow is the only thing that gives Blackheart any personality or distinction, and his character finds Ghost Rider more of a pest than a true nemesis. But it’s not entirely Bentley’s fault that his performance is woeful when every single line he utters is atrocious. One could almost see the dialogue balloon next to Wes Bentley’s head when he speaks. It is impossible to be scared of a villain when you’re too busy laughing at what he’s saying.

Bottom line: Ghost Rider doesn’t work because of the writing. The romance between young Johnny and Roxanne is pure schlock, right down to them carving their initials in an old tree, and it isn’t sufficiently developed when they are reunited. The dialogue is almost uniformly bad, with only Cage and Elliott able to make their cheesy lines work.

On the positive side, even the most jaded critic would be hard-pressed not to enjoy the film when a heavy metal version of “Ghost Riders in the Sky” kicks off act three. It gives the film a much needed and cathartic energy; if only the entire film could have been as involving and enjoyable.

As a comic book adaptation, Ghost Rider is largely faithful to the lore, but it makes one fatal alteration. In the comics, Johnny willingly sells his soul to the devil. In the movie, he essentially gets duped; seriously, even the devil knows that a paper cut doesn’t count! Turning Johnny into a victim of circumstance rather than someone who made a mistake and then has to redeem himself robs the character and the film of depth and integrity. That decision was almost as bad as Blackheart’s dialogue. Almost.

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One thought on “On Ghost Rider

  1. Pingback: On Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance | The Progressive Democrat

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