Ghost Rider: More ghastly than ghostly

Reeling It In

Posted: Thursday, February 22, 2007

By Chris Jenness

“Ghost Rider”

Sony Pictures

1 hour, 50 minutes

In this competitive day and age, the job market can be pretty tough, especially if your degree is from the school of hard knocks and not some prissy Ivy League corporate farm team. Looking for adventure? How about opportunity for travel and the chance to meet interesting, though nefarious, new people?

Hell is looking for a new Ghost Rider, and it could be you! As the devil’s bounty hunter, it’s the Ghost Rider’s job to collect on contracts where someone has sold their soul to Satan. Along with job security and a great health care package, the position also comes with a crazy demonic bike capable of driving up the sides of walls and topping 200 miles an hour. Downsides? A flaming skull and an eternity of damnation; but hey, no job’s perfect.

Our hero, motorcycle whiz kid Johnny Blaze, doesn’t exactly answer a newspaper ad, but he becomes the Ghost Rider nonetheless. Tricked by the devil into selling his soul, Johnny loses both love and family and is forced to go on his own, keeping no close ties, never knowing when he might be called into service. Finally, some 10 years after his tragic rebirth, the devil returns to put him to work. Seems that a demon has broken free of hell and wants to collect on a thousand-soul contract made some century and a half ago. It’s up to the Ghost Rider to get the contract first, and send that demon back to where he belongs.

This is where the plot begins to break down, because it’s never entirely clear what the contract will do for either the demon, Blackheart, or the devil, or why it is that the devil can’t just get it himself. I suppose all that’s beside the point; what matters is that the Ghost Rider, with his flaming skull head and spiky biker jacket, looks damned cool dispatching the bad guys with his flaming chain (an oddly cumbersome weapon, I’d have thought, but he doesn’t seem to have a problem with it) and penance stare, where he turns all the sins of the evil-doers back on themselves.

You have to wonder how it is that certain comic-to-movie projects get picked over others. I mean, “Ghost Rider?” Sure he’s cool, but he’s hardy first tier. He’s barely second tier at that. I mean, how many people had really even heard of “Ghost Rider?” I can see very few of you raising your hands. Where’s our Captain America movie? How about The Avengers? Even Thor would have made more sense. Oh well, you play the hand you’re dealt, I guess.

Actually, it’s pretty easy to tell why “Ghost Rider” is a perfect choice for today’s audiences. Unlike the earnest and forthright Captain America, he’s an anti-hero. People want to see heroes that struggle, even heroes that are really tasked to do evil, but end up doing right in the end. That’s our boy Ghostie to a tee.

I wish, however, that a little more thought had been paid to the casting. The first 20 minutes or so give us the youth of Johnny Blaze and, though silly and comic-booky, I was completely engaged.

The characters played it straight and were fine. But when the movie really gets going and we move superstar Nicholas Cage into the role, things start to get rocky. This is a silly movie, even by comic book standards. I mean, “Spider-Man” can have larger themes that resonate. Even “X-Men,” but “Ghost Rider” is about a flaming skeleton biker who dispatches bad guys with a chain and a dirty look.

The way to approach a film like this is to simply play it straight. Have a little comic relief here and there, but basically play it down the line. Cage, you can tell, is searching for a real “character” in there, and there’s just not one. At times odd and quirky, at others deadly serious, Cage is all over the map.

I honestly could have used far less of him and more of Sam Elliott, as the mysterious “Caretaker” and Peter Fonda as the diabolical Mephistopheles. Worst of all, however, is Eva Mendes as the love interest, Roxanne. She is completely unbelievable in the role, and that’s hard to do in a movie like this.

I have to hand it to the special effects team for buoying the actors. The Ghost Rider is cool, as is his bike. I especially like the bike’s transformation, though the Rider’s is hampered by too much Nicholas Cage mugging. Lots of great flame effects, though, the best of which is the subtle transformation from an angry fiery red skull to a soft, natural gas blue when Ghostie is sad.

“Ghost Rider” is overly convoluted and vacant, but still a lot of fun if you don’t take it too seriously. There are no real moral lessons to be learned here, other than don’t sell your soul to the devil and don’t cast overacting Oscar winners where they are completely unnecessary. Grade: B-

“Ghost Rider” is rated PG-13 for scary images and comic violence.

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