Ghost Rider is a Marvel superhero that may not be the most well-known in mainstream culture, but is generally considered to be more than just a cool-looking character. He is one of Marvel’s poster boy anti-heroes whose tragedy lent itself to an interesting array of dark supernatural tales. Of course, you wouldn’t know that after watching Daredevil director Mark Steven Johnson’s take on the motorcycle-riding demon hunter Ghost Rider. From his 2007 film adaptation, the only connection that can be gathered from its comic origins is that he’s a skeleton biker dude who’s on fire and looks cool. That’s about it. Not to say that straying from the source material is necessarily a bad thing, as a lot of the best comic book film adaptations concern themselves more with the spirit of the material than its intricate minutia. However, Mark Steven Johnson’s Ghost Rider omits many of the source material’s finer aspects in favor of a goofy, cheesy roller coaster ride full of wooden special effects, lazy writing, and Nicolas Cage being Nicolas Cage.
In his youth, motorcycle stunt rider Johnny Blaze (Nicolas Cage) sells his soul to the demon Mephistopheles (Peter Fonda) in exchange for curing the cancer that plagues his father (Brett Cullen). Due to the conniving of Mephistopheles, Johnny’s father dies anyway and he himself is cursed to serve as his personal bounty hunter: the Ghost Rider. Flash forward to the present and Johnny Blaze has become a famous stunt rider: isolating himself from relationships and vice in an attempt to avoid Mephistopheles. Unfortunately, Mephistopheles finds him and transforms him into the Ghost Rider in order to regain a contract containing the power of a thousand souls. As it turns out, Mephistopheles’ demonic son Blackheart (Wes Bentley) has escaped to Earth and seeks the souls in order to usurp his father and bring Hell on Earth. With the help of a mysterious man called The Caretaker (Sam Elliott) and an old love interest named Roxanne Simpson (Eva Mendes), Johnny must take control over the mysterious powers of the Ghost Rider and turn this evil entity into an outlet for justice.
Mark Steven Johnson has given contradictory statements in regards to his treatment of Ghost Rider, and it certainly shows in the unevenness of the script. In a 2006 interview from Collider, Johnson spoke about how he’s “the biggest fan of this comic book in the world” and why that has inspired him to pay tribute to the character while “making things simple so that people can understand what the hell is going on.” His statement is certainly accurate in regards to adaptation, but Mark Steven Johnson latches onto Ghost Rider in name only: retaining the look of the character while scrapping most of the characters’ personalities and motivations. As a result, many of the characters feel generic and end up drawing attention to the inherent predictability of the script. Every superhero cliche from the kidnapped girlfriend plot line to an array of one-dimensional villains who do bad things because they just are that way is on full display here; sandwiched between goofy moments of camp that feel entirely out of place. All Mark Steven Johnson seems to care about is bringing together the look of Ghost Rider, and to his credit, it can look really cool. But after a while, the computer effects start to feel hollow and the film’s lack of emotional resonance becomes apparent.
Now while the cast as a whole is a mixed bag, I must admit to having fun with some of their performances. His reputation hasn’t been solid as of late, but I still appreciate the majesty of Nicolas Cage: an actor who never ceases to entertain me regardless of the quality of his films. Granted, his is not a good translation of Johnny Blaze, as he replaces the hard-drinking, chain-smoking gruffness of the character with a weird balance between tortured and awkward. But I’ll be the first to admit that his bouts of camp can be very amusing and I’ve always loved how much he commits to a performance regardless of whether it works or not. He’s a scattershot actor to be sure, but he gives 115,000% for every role, and Ghost Rider is no exception. Surrounding Cage are a host of cheesy performances that sometimes work, sometimes don’t. For the former, I cite Sam Elliott’s Caretaker, whose iconic voice imbues Caretaker’s cliche mentor lines with a sense of mythic awe. Donal Logue brings a lot to Johnny’s best friend Mack as well, making him likable and charismatic despite how truncated his screen time is. But the villains couldn’t be duller as Wes Bentley plays Blackheart like a whiny emo version of his character from American Beauty, and his “elemental demon posse” are only excuses for lame fight scenes with Ghost Rider. And as for Eva Mendes, her cookie-cutter damsel character is lifeless and frankly, Mendes is so wooden that she practically let her cleavage do the acting for her.
I first saw Ghost Rider back in high school, and my reaction was so virulent that I ended up breaking up with my girlfriend at the time after a few weeks of arguing that started because she loved it and I hated it. Now, I can’t say that it’s a big enough deal to truly hate on. It’s mediocre as hell, but it’s never boring and I’ll admit that there is more than enough cheese to please any Nic Cage fan. As a superhero movie though, I can’t really recommend it that much.
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