To have a successful comic book/superhero movie, three critical rules must be followed: the action scenes must bring something new to the table, the villain must be as interesting as the hero, and the hero’s everyday identity must be as compelling as his alter ego. Ghost Rider succeeds at the first, stumbles on the second, and misses the third altogether. The story begins with a prologue about how Satan has bounty hunters, known as “ghost riders,” who work for him, retrieving lost souls. Years before, we are told, one such rider managed to outrun the devil himself, taking with him a much-coveted list of potential victims.
From there we move to a flashback in which a 16 year-old motorcycle stunt rider named Johnny Blaze is tricked by Mephistopheles (Peter Fonda) into selling his soul in exchange for his father’s health. Blaze’s dad does indeed miraculously recuperate from cancer the very next day – just in time to be killed in a stunt accident. Mephistopheles tells the kid that he’ll be back for him some day. Blaze rides off into the sunset, figuring the devil will never find him if he leaves. However, this entails him abandoning girlfriend Roxanne.
As an adult, Blaze (Nicolas Cage) is the world’s leading death-defying stuntman, amazingly jumping his bike over a line of helicopters with whirling blades. He reencounters Roxanne (Eva Mendes), now a reporter, and tries to rekindle his romance with her. At the same time, Mephistopheles rematerializes, telling Blaze that he must now officially become a ghost rider. Seems the devil’s son, Blackheart (Wes Bentley, little seen since his initial splash in American Beauty), is trying to usurp the old man’s powers by snatching that very same list that passed through his fingers eons before. He has some demon cohorts who take the form of water, wind, and earth. To get to Blackheart, Blaze must first go through them. If he refuses to help the devil, it will mean certain peril for Roxanne.
For me, watching Ghost Rider was a different experience from watching the other Marvel Comic movie adaptations in that I had no prior familiarity with the lead character. In that sense, it was enjoyable to learn the character’s backstory and to get familiarized with his rather unique persona. When he turns into the Ghost Rider, Blaze’s head becomes a flaming skull. His motorcycle also goes ablaze, and he stops his enemies with the whip of a fiery chain. The really cool part is that he has the ability to absorb the evil of criminals and shoot it back, making them feel the pain they have inflicted on others. This is a particularly intriguing story element that could pay off well should the film warrant sequels.
Director Mark Steven Johnson (the underrated Daredevil) turns in some fun action sequences based on the character’s appearance and abilities. A sequence in which Blaze rides his motorcycle up and down the sides of a skyscraper is particularly entertaining. I found similar amusement in watching Blaze take on the baddies with his chain. On a visual level, Ghost Rider is appealingly different.
The villains don’t have the same impact as the visuals because the whole subplot involving the list is kind of hard to follow. Mephistopheles and Blackheart could have used some more character development. I mean, here’s the devil feuding with his son – it’s an overabundance of evil. That idea intrigues me, especially as it pertains to Johnny Blaze being stuck in the middle. The screenplay only begins to address it, which is too bad, especially since “Easy Rider” Peter Fonda is wittily cast as the devil. This could have been a really strong suit of the film rather than a promising-but-ultimately-missed opportunity.
Probably the biggest flaw is that Johnny Blaze is as dull as Ghost Rider is interesting. Nicolas Cage tries to invest the character with some of his trademark eccentricity, but the problem is in the script. He never shows much of a reaction to becoming “Satan’s bounty hunter.” Superheroes are always best when they have some awareness of their newfound abilities and must confront the pros and cons of it. (I call that “Peter Parker Syndrome.”) In the case of Ghost Rider, a love interest is introduced to give Blaze something to fight for, yet it’s nothing new or exciting. What it is, is distracting. Nicolas Cage is 43; Eva Mendes is 32. If Johnny Blaze is 16 at the beginning of the film, that would make Roxanne 5. The age difference between the actors might have been less obviously jarring if not for the fact that Cage looks his age, while Mendes looks even younger than she is. Or if it were anything other than a generic romantic subplot. I suppose there is room here for a romance, but it should have been secondary to Blaze grappling with his new powers and, more disturbingly, their uneasy source.
Only when the flaming skeleton strides his fiery bike does the film hit high gear which, admittedly, is often enough to make this a passably diverting two hours. I feel the same way about Ghost Rider that I did about Fantastic Four: it can’t stand alongside the Spider-Man and X-Men films, but there’s enough potential established here to suggest that any future sequels could significantly improve upon the original by adhering to those three crucial rules.
( 1/2 out of four)
Ghost Rider is rated PG-13 for horror violence and disturbing images. The running time is 1 hour and 54 minutes.
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