I’ll be honest. I had never even heard of the character “Ghost Rider” until I read this film was being made. I will be unable to tell you how closely this film follows the story of this character, as set forth by Marvel Comics. I can tell you whether the film works or not.
It does and it doesn’t. There are a number of interesting ideas and themes in “Ghost Rider”, but there are an equal number of things that don’t work. Ultimately, it is a wash.
Young Johnny Blaze learns his father, a stunt motorcyclist who is teaching him the tricks of the trade, has cancer and a strange man (Peter Fonda) appears offering to save the young man’s dad. All Mephistopheles wants in return is Blaze’s soul. Blaze doesn’t quite believe the man, but signs anyway. does get better, but events happen and Blaze rides off into the sunset, leaving his girlfriend, Roxanne behind. Years later, the adult Johnny Blaze (Nicholas Cage) travels around the country completing one stunt more elaborate than the next. Eventually, Mephistopheles comes to collect on the contract. If Blaze can banish Blackheart (Wes Bentley, “American Beauty”) to hell, the devil will tear up the contract and Johnny can have his soul back. At this same time, Roxanne (Eva Mendes) returns to town, a television reporter working her way through the ranks. Unwilling to help the devil, Johnny finds that he transforms, at night and in the presence of evil, into Ghost Rider, a motorcycle riding skeleton engulfed in flame who rides a motorcycle covered in fire. Eventually, Blackheart realizes he has a formidable foe in Ghost Rider and decides to use Roxanne as bait.
The film begins with a voice over by Sam Elliot, recounting an old legend about a small village in Mexico the devil wanted to claim. He sent his bounty hunter, the Ghost Rider, a cowboy on a horse, to claim the contract for their souls, but the Ghost Rider realized how powerful this document was and never turned it over. Sam Elliot’s gravely voice does two things immediately; it telegraphs that this film will be more of a fable, maybe even a tall tale (remember his voice over during the Coen Brothers’ “Big Lebowski”?) and it also points to a definite Western influence to the story. When the story moves to present day, much of it takes place in Dallas and many small influences of Texas and Southwest design pop up here and there. In this way, they are making Johnny Blaze and Ghost Rider a sort of modern day cowboy.
These elements added a lot of interest to the story, taking it beyond a normal comic book superhero.
There is a lot of humor throughout the story and much of this is presented in a tongue and cheek manner. This doesn’t exactly work, because it makes Cage seem even more jokey and unbelievable than he already is. The film is much better when it takes the characters and their action seriously. Yes, I realize we are talking about a man who becomes a motorcycle riding skeleton who battles the devil’s son. But if the characters aren’t taking the story seriously, how is the viewer? If the characters take the action seriously, the viewer will believe the story, no matter how outlandish. The “Spider Man” films are a prime example of this.
Nicholas Cage has never been the most subtle actor. Given the opportunity, he frequently veers into overacting, chewing the scenery and mugging furiously for the camera. When he makes a quip, or steals a glance at the camera doing a virtual wink wink, the character becomes jokey. When Cage stares at the heavens and starts screaming, as he transforms into Ghost Rider, he mugs furiously for the camera, reminding us that we are watching a comic book character.
In many ways, this film reminded me of the old “Doc Savage” film starring Ron Ely. The more I think about, the more the two films resemble each other. While “Ghost Rider” is nowhere near as bad as “Doc Savage”, the two films are played for laughs, with the lead actors doing some serious scenery chewing. Both films have a pervasive wink wink nudge nudge feel about them. But Cage is a better actor and helps the character retain any seriousness, any gravitas he may have.
Eva Mendes plays Roxanne, Blaze’s long unrequited love. When she returns as an adult and has a chance meeting with the new Stunt show star, she finds he hasn’t changed much. At one point, Blaze confides in her and tells her what is going on. She is barely able to conceal her smirk and clearly doesn’t believe him. But she ultimately serves little purpose other than the damsel in distress.
Peter Fonda plays Mephistopheles and dos an interesting job of bringing the devil to life. For much of the film, he is quiet, using his words to provide the the threats, speaking in soft tones. But during the moments when he is trying to be really scary, his voice changes little.
Wes Bentley returns to the big screen playing Blackheart, the devil’s son, who wants to take over dear old dad’s territory. We haven’t seen Bentley in a high profile film for a while. After he made a splash in “American Beauty”, he made a couple of films including the poorly received “The Four Feathers” and then dropped from the radar for a while. He has since made some films, none of which I have ever heard of, so this could b e considered his big screen return. His role is interesting, but it almost seems to be done in shorthand. We certainly get the sense he is menacing, but really don’t understand why he wants to take over for dear old Dad. Why is there so much hatred between them? I understand we are talking about the Devil and his son, but the Devil seems genuinely perplexed by his son’s attitude. When he learns of Ghost Rider, he has to get rid of his new foe and they battle in very spectacular ways.
Another thing that helps many ‘super hero’ films become memorable is that we actually believe the actors are playing real characters. How do they achieve this? We actually see their faces, believe they are in danger. In “Ghost Rider”, many of the scenes are created largely, maybe completely, with CGI (computer generated animation). While this helps the filmmakers crate scenes they would never be able to do normally, it also provides a disconnect with the audience. We are watching cartoons, we are watching an animated Ghost Rider ride up the side of a building on his motorcycle of fire. We lose the connection with the actors and the story. The “Spiderman” films have a similar problem; when Spiderman swings through the air on his web, we realize this is accomplished through CGi and begin to disconnect, but these sequences are brief and the animated Spiderman is very close in appearance to Tobey Maguire in the live action scenes, so we feel more of a connection.
“Ghost Rider” is written and directed by Mark Steven Johnson, who was behind “Daredevil”, which I really liked, and “Elektra”, which I never saw. He seems to be making a career of bringing comic book heroes to the big screen. In “Ghost Rider”, he makes the material more jokey and less believable, more like a Saturday afternoon serial. Perhaps that was the feeling he was going for, but it doesn’t completely work.
There are some elements, some ideas at work in “Ghost Rider”, enough to warrant a DVD rental or low priced matinee. Beyond that, you should be a big fan of the material to pay full price. If you aren’t, you will probably be disappointed.