|Written by Mel Odom|
|Wednesday, 01 August 2007|
Long before Nicolas Cage brought Johnny Blaze to life on the big screen, the character was a staple of Marvel Comics’ horror line in the 1970s. Senior writers Roy Thomas and Gary Friedrich created Johnny Blaze’s character and backstory while renowned artist Mike Ploog created the black leather and flaming skull look.
Comics fans immediately fell in love with the idea of a stunt cyclist turned supernatural hero on the run from the Devil himself. When Johnny Blaze’s head first caught on fire and he created the Hellcycle to combat evil at night, every kid reading the comic want to be him. In just a few short months Johnny Blaze burst from the pages of Marvel Premiere into his own magazine.
At the time, Marvel Comics had been enjoying tremendous success with its “Tomb of Dracula” comic as well as “Werewolf By Night” and their version of Frankenstein. Like Jack Russell, the Werewolf, Ghost Rider debuted in the pages of “Marvel Spotlight”. Both were predominantly sympathetic heroes host to uncontrollable demonic forces that took over their lives. Once the Ghost Rider was out (or the werewolf in Jack Russell’s case) all bets were off and madness and mayhem were certain to follow. Fans of both series lived for those moments.
The Ghost Rider name had been used before by Marvel Comics. When Stan Lee was busy writing his Western heroes (like the Rawhide Kid, the Two-Gun Kid, and Kid Colt Outlaw), the Ghost Rider had been a night vigilante dressed all in white who rode a phantom horse. Of course, the horse wasn’t really a phantom and the Ghost Rider was just the secret identity of Carter Slade.
Writer Ray Krank and artist Dick Ayers created the Western Ghost Rider in 1967. This is also the character that Sam Elliott plays in the movie, but the history is different. In the movie, Carter Slade was the devil’s bounty hunter and has lived for 150 years. In the comics, Carter Slade was killed and succeeded by his sidekick, then his brother, within a few short months of the comic’s debut. A present-day descendant, Hamilton Slade, has become the new re-named Phantom Rider.
The movie pretty much follows the story set up in the opening issues of “Marvel Premiere.” There are a few cosmetic differences. In the comics, Johnny wasn’t trained by his father and didn’t trade his soul in for his father’s life, but was trying to save the life of the stepfather in essentially the same way. And the devil betrayed him in the same fashion.
The comic series ran off and on again for years, going through a number of writer/artist teams that never quite recaptured that initial surge of interest. The series is again ongoing at Marvel Comics after a few runs in limited series. It seems that every generation is going to rediscover its own version of the stunt cyclist from Hell.
In the movie, the action opens on Carter Slade as the current fire-headed anti-hero. He’s gathered up contract of a thousand souls, every man, woman, and child living in San Verganza, a small desert town. Just as he’s about to hand the contract over to Mephistopheles, the demon he’s working for, he turns and runs. Astride his horse, he outruns the devil himself.
The choreography of this opening scene is great and really sets the mood. The stakes are already bumped up incredibly high with a thousand souls on the line, as well as the Ghost Rider’s life. Unfortunately, some of this build-up is instantly lost with the transition to Johnny Blaze’s story.
The story picks up when Johnny (Matt Long) is still a teenager riding stunt cycles for a small carnival. His father, Barton Blaze (Brett Cullen), is the main attraction. Together, father and son defy death and try to figure out the relationship between them. The carnival scenes are pretty good, and everything feels right, from the stunt cycles to the clowns.
The romance between young Johnny Blaze and Roxanne Simpson is also set up. They’ve decided to elope since their fathers would never agree to their relationship. This is pure Romeo and Juliet stuff, but that’s a plot device that’s been around for hundreds of years and will probably always work.
Things take a turn for the worst when Johnny discovers his father has lung cancer. Not knowing what else to do, Johnny immerses himself in work. Then Mephistopheles (Peter Fonda) shows up to offer him a deal. In exchange for Johnny’s soul, Mephistopheles will take away the cancer. Even though he doesn’t believe at first the demon is real, once he becomes convinced, Johnny takes the deal. Every viewer watching the movie will buy into the naiveté Johnny displays at this point, but at the same time they’ll be able to see what’s coming. Barton Blaze is cured from the cancer, but he dies horribly in the next stunt he tries.
Johnny Blaze, knowing his soul is in the hands of a demon, flees the carnival and Roxanne. He never tells her what’s been going on. This plotting is purely comic book stuff, but so far it’s effective and moves the story along.
However, that tends to chance once Nicolas Cage steps onto the screen and plays an adult Johnny Blaze. Cage even admits to taking his stage name from a Marvel Comics hero, Luke Cage, who is also soon to be a feature film. He was born Nicholas Coppola, nephew to Francis Ford Coppola. He chose a different name to create his own identity and earn his career on his merit, but everyone knew who he was.
Cage has pulled off several over-the-top roles during his career. I thought “Con Air” was especially egregious when it came to larger-than-life characters and droll bravery in the face of certain death, but Cage had me rooting for him the whole way. He did the same thing in “The Rock” with, of all people, Sean Connery. But, again, I was with him the whole way even when the end could be guessed from the beginning of the movie.
As Johnny Blaze, though, he’s so far over the top that you never even remember passing the summit. There’s too much swagger and too much arrogance to his portrayal of the role, especially for longtime fans of the comic. Johnny’s obviously convinced that the devil is real and that his soul is in mortal jeopardy, but Cage never seems to truly grasp that in a way that borrows sympathy from the audience. It just comes across as pure plot device, a problem that’ll be dealt with by the end of the movie.
Watching Cage as Johnny Blaze, I couldn’t help thinking he was trying to channel the ghost of Elvis Presley. The self-deprecating way of showing he was a devil-may-care kind of guy would have worked for a movie about Elvis, but here, to a degree, it’s annoying. One of the scenes that screams for someone to tone down the attitude is when he’s sipping jellybeans from a highball glass. That was just odd and stood out as a definite reminder that we were watching a movie.
Donal Logue stars as Johnny’s best friend and manager, Mack. Logue makes an excellent best friend. The role in the beginning is expertly played with a mixture of honest emotion and slapstick comedy. He gets hosed at the end of the movie, though, when everything he could have been and added to the film disappears, literally, in a flash of fire.
Eve Mendes is incredibly beautiful and easy to look at onscreen, but the role of Roxanne doesn’t afford any real depth. She delivers the lines and the looks, but doesn’t get the chance to bring anything to the character. Still, it isn’t necessary because this is an action film and most of the movie relies heavily on the special effects of the Ghost Rider battling and riding.
Peter Fonda as Mephistopheles delivers a solid performance, but most of the fans may snicker at him a little when they remember him starring in “Easy Rider”.
Wes Bentley almost pulls off the villain role as Blackheart, the son of Mephistopheles. The look and attitude are right, but he just doesn’t come alive on the screen as a truly memorable bad guy. He’s more or less just going through the motions and letting the special effects people provide the menace. His powers, and those of his cohorts, are well done and creepy. The casual way they kill doesn’t stand out, but the job the F/X guys do to show those deaths is awesome.
While the Ghost Rider is just Johnny Blaze, the movie tends to just take up time. But when the flaming skull shows up, we’re looking at a totally different movie. The action sequences are dynamic and colorful, and so big they fill up not only the screen but the viewer’s imagination. For all of us who read the comics and wanted to see Ghost Rider actually race up the side of a building on the Hellcycle, it’s here. (Admittedly, Batman did this in his car in the recent movie, but even that wasn’t as cool as watching the Ghost Rider scream up one.)
The movie works best when the Ghost Rider is out, even the hokey scene when the two Ghost Riders team up at the end for “one last ride” works. Sam Elliott is a well-known Western actor at a time when Hollywood doesn’t make those. His appearance as Carter Slade, the Western Ghost Rider and Caretaker, is great. If he’d been on the screen more, it might not have worked. But his performance was spot-on as the crusty old guy watching the new guy take all the pratfalls. Elliott’s bit near the end of the movie brings the magic back to the movie.
The visual presentation on Blu-ray is stunning. This is one of those films made for high-def, and “Ghost Rider” scores big-time with all the special effects and stunts.
And it also thunders through the surround sound. The musical score by Christopher Young is great and complements the film in a lot of ways. But the roar of the motorcycle engine will shake the house and make viewers feel they’re standing right on top of the action.
The special features appear to be a labor of love. Everyone who worked on the film seemed to enjoy what they were doing to bring the character and the story to life. It’s all well worth watching to see the behind-the-scenes stuff as well as the camaraderie that took place during the shoot.
“Ghost Rider” might not be everyone’s cup of tea. It definitely isn’t a great movie that everyone should see. But it succeeds where it needs to in order to kick off another Marvel Comics franchise. “Ghost Rider 2” is purportedly in the early stages of coming together.
Fans of the comics will go for the DVD; they’re encouraged to pick up the Blu-ray edition. The video and audio standards are true musts for those fans. While this isn’t one of Nicolas Cage’s sterling performances, there are probably several people who will enjoy him nonetheless.
Mom might not care for the story or the presentation, but the violence and language are toned down enough that this would be a good action film for family night, especially for dads who want to share their heroes with the kiddos and can fold up their critical hats and watch the movie with new eyes. “Ghost Rider” isn’t art, but on a few levels it is movie-making magic.