“Ghost Rider” needs a new ghost writer.
Well, it needs something. You might not think that a movie based on a comic book about a flaming skeleton in a leather outfit who rides a (literally) hot motorcycle and has a (literally) penetrating stare would be dull, but this one is.
Johnny Blaze has a motorcycle carny act with his father, riding through fire. The night before Johnny is to run away with his true love, Roxanne, a stranger (Peter Fonda) appears, telling Johnny that he can cure his father’s lung cancer if Johnny is willing to trade his soul.
Johnny does not believe and does not exactly agree, but he spills his blood on the contract, and that is good enough for the stranger, who turns out to be none other than Mephistopheles. Meph, a master of the loophole, cures the cancer, but Johnny’s father dies anyway. And now he belongs to the devil, who tells him he’ll be back when he needs a rider.
Flash forward a couple of decades and Johnny (now Nicolas Cage) is a sort of Evil Kneivel with a bit of Tony Hawk, and a touch of rock star. He performs daredevil stunts in front of huge arenas, his latest a plan to jump the length of a football field. And who should show up to interview him for television but his old friend Roxanne (now Eva Mendes), last seen as he left her standing in the rain.
He persuades her to meet him for dinner, but before he can get there, another old friend shows up, that mysterious stranger again. It turns out that it is now time for Johnny to become “the devil’s bounty hunter” and chase down Blackheart (American Beauty’s Wes Bentley) before he can beat Meph to a missing list of promised souls.
It just doesn’t work. Writer/director Mark Steven Johnson showed with Elektra and Daredevil that he has no feel for comic book stories. The pacing is sluggish and the action scenes are static and repetitious. There are some nice special effects as GR uses a chain like a flaming lasso and Blackheart’s henchmen exert their power over air and water. But the movie violates its own rules so frequently that it removes any real sense of involvement or meaning. Blackheart and his thugs seem like weak attempts to recreate Kevin Smith’s clever street punk demons in Dogma. And as Blackheart himself, Bentley smolders less persuasively than he did as the drug-dealing, video-taking teenager in American Beauty. When the poor guy is called upon to make sarcastic clapping work in a key confrontation, it teeters on the brink of parody.
A hero with a skull face is a cool idea in a comic, but in a movie the inability to show any kind of expression makes it difficult for it to seem menacing or sympathetic, and it is impossible to take advantage of all Cage (a comic book fan whose very stage name is a tribute to another comic book character) can do. Since he can’t play a skull, he is limited to a few expressions of agonizing isolation, longing, and painful transformation. If Ghost Rider wanted to fetch something of value, he should have been out there looking for a better script.
Parents should know that this film has a number of disturbing images, including a flaming skull and other grotesque characters and graphic violence and injuries. Characters drink and smoke and use brief bad language. The issue of selling a soul to the devil and damnation may be upsetting to some audience members.
Families who see this movie should talk about some of the other stories about characters who sell their souls to the devil and what they think about Johnny’s decision at the end of the movie.
Fans of this movie will enjoy reading the graphic novels, starting with Essential Ghost Rider, Vol. 1.