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Ghost Rider (2007) Print E-mail
Friday, 16 February 2007
He’s a leather-clad motorcycle rider with a flaming skull for a head. Even his bike is sinister-looking, featuring a chrome head on the front, claws clutching the gas tank, bars made of chains, and overall bad dude look. If you find this image romantic and exciting, even cool, “Ghost Rider” is the movie for you. If you find this image so extravagant as to flop over into silly—oddly enough, you may still enjoy the movie. Screenwriter-director Mark Steven Johnson largely treats the material with a fairly light hand (it receives the not-too-strong PG-13 rating), and to a degree spoofs his own material. This gives it a kind of double-image quality which largely works to the movie’s benefit. The result is an entertaining if not exactly convincing Marvel comics superhero adventure, full of roaring motorcycles, fallen angels, some amazing stunts, lots of action and a mostly fast pace.

Furthermore—well, what do we go to movies for? I daresay one of the attractions is to see incredible or beautiful or striking images and actions not available anywhere else, and “Ghost Rider” has a handful of these, some of which are unwisely tossed away in the trailer. When he’s in full Ghost Rider mode, Johnny Blaze (Nicolas Cage) blazes (ha ha get it?) down darkened city streets on a flaming motorcycle leaving a fiery track in his wake. (Sometimes he also blasts what he passes, flinging cars through windows, melting parking meters, exploding street lights, apparently out of sheer diabolical power—or maybe because he’s just so like cool, you know?)

At one point, the Ghost Rider rides his blazing bike right up the side of a skyscraper (the movie was shot in Melbourne, Australia, but the story is set in Texas), again leaving a blazing track that melt a motorcycle-tire-wide swath right across windows, which disconcerts an innocent-bystander window washer. Ghost Rider also rides his bike DOWN the building a moment later.

Then there’s the scene in which Ghost Rider, on his bike, thunders across the nighttime Texas plains (every night features a gigantic full moon) beside another ghost rider, this one wearing a cowboy hat and mounted on a spectral horse. It’s an astonishing, evocative, thrilling and funny image that’s like nothing else I’ve ever seen. It would seem to demand the music accompanying it be “Ghost Riders in the Sky”—but that’s the end title music.

A weakness is that it takes almost an hour to just explain the setup. No radioactive spider bite here, no murdered parents, no being born on another planet, subjected to radiation (gamma and otherwise)—nope, the origin of Ghost Rider involves the Devil himself, played—brilliantly—by Peter Fonda, who just had to be in a movie about a motorcycle-riding superhero.
At seventeen, Johnny Blaze (Matt Long) performs in a motorcycle circus act with his father (Brett Cullen), and is smitten with Roxy Simpson (Raquel Alessi), whose (never seen) parents don’t approve of her romancing a hotshot carny. When Johnny learns his father is dying of cancer, he’s a sucker for the deal Mephistopheles (which is what the Devil here is generally called) offers: his father in good health in exchange for Johnny’s soul.

And sure enough, when the boy wakes up in the morning, his father is cured—but then is immediately killed in his dangerous act. Johnny was about to ride off into the sunset with Roxy, but now this turns him into both a haunted-eyed loner and Nicolas Cage (playing Johnny as an adult).

He’s still doing the stunts, touring the country with a support team, occasionally wrecking bikes—he keeps all the old ones in a warehouse in Texas—and haunted by his past. Not so haunted that he doesn’t enjoy a champagne glass full of jellybeans while relaxing and listening to The Carpenters. (Cage added these amusing but pointless “character” flourishes.)

Meanwhile, we see that Mephistopheles—still using a walking stick, still Peter Fonda—is having trouble with his literally soulless son Blackheart (Wes Bentley). Well, if he’s so bad, why did you saddle him with a name like that? There’s something about a contract for the thousand souls of a Southwestern town that descended into seething hell-on-earth corruption. A previous Ghost Rider made off with the contact, and Mephistopheles wants it back. But so does Blackheart; owning the contract will, for reasons never really explained, give him dominion over Hell, or to be able to establish Hell as a franchise, or bring about the End of Days, or some damned (literally) thing.

As if all this wasn’t complicated enough, Blackheart has as his minions three or four fallen angels born to the aspects of earth, air and water. (Johnny Blaze may embody fire, but this is murky.) They’re his tools in his quest for that thousand-soul contract, and they all spend their free time killing lots of peoples, mostly (unaccountably) bikers.

But wait, there’s more. Johnny learns he’s now the Devil’s bounty hunter, and is to go around gathering souls, or something. But first he has to turn into Ghost Rider, which involves Cage writhing in agony for a while, then bursting into maniacal laughter (complete with traditional Cage bulging eyes) as the skin of his head vanishes in segments, leaving a blazing skull. His motorcycle changes too, and thereafter comes like an obedient horse when Johnny (literally) whistles it up. (The other Ghost Rider’s steed IS a horse, which also comes when whistled.) Later, when Johnny changes back, he experiences yet more agony, but all this pain, maniacal laughter and bulging Nic eyes are soon dropped, thank goodness.

Mephistopheles instructs him to kill, or whatever, Blackheart and his minions, but sometimes Johnny is distracted by bad guys doing bad stuff. He has the power of the Penance Stare, another fairly silly idea: he stares intently—without eyes—at wrongdoers who suddenly experience all the pain they’ve caused others. Their eyes turn into fire-laced black stone, or so it looks, and they expire, or maybe just feel really guilty.

The busy story also reunites Johnny with an older Roxy (Eva Mendes, gorgeously sultry) who’s now a TV news reporter, conveniently enough. Johnny tries to reunite with her but unfortunately on the same night that Mephistopheles makes his reappearances. What with Johnny roaring around town on his blazing motorcycle with his blazing cranium, he just doesn’t have time to get back together with Roxy.

At the cemetery where his father is buried, Johnny meets “Caretaker” (grizzled Sam Elliott), who knows all about Ghost Rider, his duties and his powers. Good thing as the blazing skull didn’t come with an instruction manual. It’s not giving anything away to reveal that Caretaker is actually Carter Slade, that former Texas Ranger-turned-Ghost Rider who fled with that thousand-soul contract more than a hundred years ago. For one thing, the opening scene, showing Slade and Mephistopheles, is narrated in Elliott’s wonderful, familiar voice.

All this stew is occasionally briskly stirred by director Johnson, who also helmed the pretty-good “Daredevil,” though the scenes between Cage and Mendes tend to make you glance at your watch and tap your foot. Get on with it already. Also, evidently to present more opportunities for spectacular images, the local police turn out in heavily-armed force to take on Ghost Rider, suspected of a handful of killings Blackheart and his buddies were responsible for. It’s hard to get someone to listen to reason when you’re riding a fiery motorcycle and your head is a flaming skull.

Superheroes are intrinsically exaggerations, and Ghost Rider is an exaggeration of an exaggeration; unlike most superheroes, his abilities are extensions of standard-issue human powers, nor are they relatively easy to understand and demonstrate science fictional powers. No, he’s a motorcyclist with his head on fire, and what does THAT suggest to you? To me, nothing very clearly. So Ghost Rider has to have various somewhat illogical powers grafted on—that Penance Stare, for one thing (which stops the movie in its tracks every time it’s used, because we have to see glimpses of the pain the evildoer being stared at caused others). Then there’s this long, flaming logging chain which Ghost Rider sometimes uses as a whip, and its powers vary with the situation. At the end, he becomes equipped with a blazing shotgun (everything associated with GR has a tendency to ignite) which shoots goodness shells, or something.

Because despite his literally hell-born powers, Ghost Rider/Johnny Blaze is determined to use his abilities on the side of goodness and virtue. It takes the entire movie to arrive at this point, which perhaps should have established in the first ten minutes.

“Ghost Rider” is pretty lively, except for those romantic interludes which, fortunately, aren’t long or frequent. Johnson and his cinematographers Russell Boyd and John Wheeler, fill the wide screen with occasional amazing, exciting and amusing images. The score by the uneven Christopher Young is excellent, particularly in the climactic showdown between Ghost Rider and Blackheart. The story tends to be repetitious and halting, with Ghost Rider having to take on those fallen angel pals of Blackheart one at a time, with each destruction making us all too aware we’re going to have to sit through another one pretty soon.

Nicolas Cage is a comic book fan of long standing; he replaced his original last name of Coppola with one lifted from the Marvel Comic “Luke Cage, Hero for Hire.” And for several months a couple of years ago, he was poised on the brink of becoming Superman. He’s clearly having a grand time as Johnny Blaze and Ghost Rider, wisely laughing at himself while remaining in character. His performance is typically full of energy, highly physical and involved. Even when his head is a blazing skull, Cage’s personality comes through all that CGI fire. He has a little self-improvement mantra which he speaks to his mirror image before stunts—“You can’t live in fear”—which comes in handy when he’s Ghost Rider.

Eva Mendes has little to do as Roxy; all her best scenes follow her adult reunion with Johnny. Toward the end, she has little to do but look scared, watching her boyfriend in leather with a blazing skull battling a guy who looks sort of like an 80s heavy metal/punkish rock star. (Blackheart and his buddies all wear long leather coats, tight-fitting above the waist, flaring out below the hips.)

Wes Bentley seems somewhat petulant as the Son of Mephistopheles (who was the mother?), arrogantly staring down dear old dad. There’s not much personality here; he’s just a black magician who likes being evil. Sam Elliott is much more interesting as a previous Ghost Rider, even though his primary duty is pretty much limited to filling in the background. Donal Logue has a few okay scenes, as long as he lasts, as Johnny’s very protective manager and best friend.

But the standout in the supporting players is Peter Fonda. When he first started acting, people (naturally) compared him to his father Henry and half-sister Jane—and the comparisons were not positive. Back then, Peter was diffident, unconvincing and shallow. Now he’s a commanding actor; his performances are rich with confidence, subtly varied and very strong. Aside from the effects and (usually) cage, Fonda is the best thing about “Ghost Rider;” he’s always welcome when he shows up, never does quite what you’re expecting, and always in charge. Bravo Peter Fonda.

“Ghost Rider” isn’t up there with the terrific Marvel Comics movies like the Spider-Man films and the first X-Men; it’s second-tier stuff, a lot like “Daredevil.” But like “Daredevil” it rides right over objections; mostly energetic, with some clunky diversions, mostly entertaining, embracing its own intrinsic silliness, “Ghost Rider” is a lot of fiery fun. Just not as much fun as it might have been.

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