Directed by Mark Steven Johnson
There have been some great comic book movies, and there have been some terrible comic book movies. Mark Steven Johnson’s big screen adaptation of Marvel Comics’ spectral crime-fighter Ghost Rider may very well be the most depressing comic book movie ever made. Not because the material is such a downer, depressing because it’s such a missed opportunity. Johnson has done something seemingly unthinkable by making a movie about a flaming skeletal biker riding a burning motorcycle thoroughly uninteresting. I never thought Johnson deserved all the grief he got from fanboys over his movie version of Marvel’s Daredevil – I honestly didn’t think it was all that bad. This time, however… Although there are brief moments here and there where I could see the movie it should have been trying to shine through, Johnson deserves whatever grief he gets over Ghost Rider. The failings of this one are predominantly his doing.
An imaginative concept almost completely devoid of any imagination outside of the visual aesthetic of the title character … An exciting character that is given nothing exciting to do … A movie based entirely around the fate of a person’s soul that has no soul of its own … Overloaded with unfunny jokes, characters without any substance to them, and plot elements that manage to be predictably clichéd even for a movie about a flaming skeletal motorcycle riding supernatural avenger, Ghost Rider is the movie equivalent of a comic collector getting all hyped up over purchasing a new special edition comic that comes poly-bagged with a holographic foil cover and a collector’s card inside, only to actually get down to reading the comic and realizing they were suckered in by all the fancy packaging for something mediocre and undeserving of such special treatment. Comic book marketing gimmicks like that were what ultimately ended my comic book collecting days.
For those unfamiliar, Marvel Comics first unleashed “Ghost Rider” upon the world in a 1972 issue of Marvel Spotlight that proved popular enough to spawn its own title that would run for a decade. Johnny Blaze was a daredevil stunt cyclist who summoned the demon Mephistopheles and offered his soul in exchange for saving the life of his cancer-stricken adopted father – his biological father being a daredevil himself who had perished in a stunt gone wrong. Mephistopheles cures him just long enough so that he can go get himself killed performing a stunt, making Blaze’s pact all for nothing. Mephistopheles owned Blaze’s soul and merged him with a vengeance demon to be used as his own personal bounty hunter, but Blaze would soon turn the tables by using his powers for good as the supernatural vigilante known as Ghost Rider.
When transformed, Johnny Blaze became a flaming skull-headed, leather-clad biker riding a fiery motorcycle that could travel at super speed and defy most of the laws of physics, his primary weapons being a steel chain with paranormal properties and Hellfire, a flame that burned a person’s soul instead of their physical being. The character would be brought back in 1990 with a new character becoming the Ghost Rider and a new power called the Penance Stare – looking into Ghost Rider’s eyes would make the person experience all the pain and suffering they’d causes others.
The movie version has teenager Johnny Blaze performing alongside his dad in his father’s daredevil motorcycle stunt show. In love and planning to run off with his girlfriend, Roxanne, plans go awry for Johnny when he learns his father has terminal cancer. His grief-stricken reaction is to crumple up the medical document and go work on his bike. To say the dude playing teen Johnny Blaze registers a zero on the emoting scale would be an understatement.
Mephistopheles (played with diabolical zeal by Peter Fonda) just shows up in the garage and offers to save his dad in exchange for his mortal soul. Johnny agrees without much hesitation and the next day dad is 100% well, at least until he dies in a stunt gone wrong. Johnny confronts Mephistopheles about being double-crossed; the devil doesn’t care because Johnny still owes him a debt and vows to come collecting sometime in the future, telling young Johnny to forsake love, family, etc. because in the end his soul belongs to him. Johnny rides off, leaving Roxanne and his past life behind.
Fast forward to the present where Johnny Blaze is now a fearless motorcycle daredevil of Evel Knievel proportions thanks to his increasingly dangerous feats, such as jumping the length of a football field over a line of Blackhawk helicopters. Walking away unscathed even when taking a spectacular spill, Johnny isn’t sure if his motorcycle jumping prowess is a testament to how great a rider he is or if there’s some unseen force keeping him safe. He’s reunited with Roxanne (Eva Mendes in a role that redefines vacuous), now a TV news reporter and, frankly, a lousy one at that; more to being credible as a TV reporter than just holding a microphone and speaking on camera.
No sooner do Johnny and Roxanne rekindle their romance than Mephistopheles comes calling on him to fulfill his debt by becoming his new rider. Mephistopheles’ even more evil offspring Blackheart (Wes Bentley, looking as if he got confused and thought he was going to be playing the villain in The Covenant 2) has arrived on our mortal plane to seek out a contract hidden away by the last rider during the Wild West, a contract for enough evil souls to bring about hell on earth. Blaze is transformed and sent to stop Blackheart and his minions.
Sam Elliott soon turns up as a mysterious graveyard caretaker who exists solely to explain everything Johnny doesn’t already know about the history of being the rider and the infernal contract that both Mephistopheles and Blackheart seek. While Elliott’s quite good in the role, the very existence of this character, especially when you see what ultimately becomes of him, is just the product of lazy storytelling. Well, lazy screenwriting and finding a way for Johnson to include a scene of two Ghost Riders side-by-side, one a flaming skeletal cowboy galloping along on flaming horseback. All things considered, Elliott’s character vs. Fonda’s devil would have made a much more compelling movie than the one we got.
It’s said that a hero is only as good as the villain he’s opposing. If that’s the case, then Ghost Rider truly is a super dud. Bentley’s Blackheart has nothing to do except glare, sneer, cackle, and use his one-touch life force draining powers on random people. Heck, his first appearance has him materialize in a shower of sparks out in the desert and immediately proceed to a nearby biker bar to kill everyone inside for no particular reason. I guess Johnson figured that since taking out a bar full of bikers made the Terminator look badass then it should work for Blackheart too. It doesn’t. Even at the end when Blackheart takes his powers to the next level, he still proves to be a wimp. If you thought Stephen Dorff’s Deacon Frost came across wimpy opposite Wesley Snipes’ Blade, then wait until you see this.
Being wimpy is a common trait amongst Ghost Rider’s foes in this film. The very brief scuffles with the three elementals aiding Blackheart all follow the same common pattern: bad guy uses his power on Ghost Rider, Ghost Rider gets up and immediately the bad guy begins begging off, and then Ghost Rider destroys him. That’s exactly how it all goes down each time. The showdown with the wind elemental sets new standards for lameness as this guy’s battle plan for defeating Ghost Rider seemed to involve talking him into submission. He just floats in the air taunting Ghost Rider about how he can’t physically harm the wind, and then Ghost Rider quickly, easily finds a way to kill him. These pathetic battles are the antithesis of what you want in a comic book superhero movie. And except for the first encounter, they never even seem to consider that maybe they should all team up and attack him at once.
So the superhero side of things fizzles? Okay, what about the plight of Johnny Blaze as he struggles to deal with knowing his soul belongs to the devil and becoming the rider. Again, a big fat goose egg. Instead of behaving like a guy that knows his soul is damned and is going to live whatever time he has left living on the edge or as a tormented soul constantly looking over his shoulder in fear of when the devil is going to come to collect on his debt, pre-Ghost Rider Johnny Blaze comes across as more of a sports figure with a confidence problem, wondering if he’s really as good as he is or if it’s just luck or, in his case, whether his success and survival are due to the devil keeping him alive for later use. Sporadically morose whenever the screenplay calls for him to be, Blaze is mostly portrayed as a wisecracking oddball with a love for jellybeans, funny videos of monkeys doing wacky things, and repeating his mantra about how you can’t live a life of fear. In other words, there’s no levity to his character or the situation he’s in. Just having him occasionally staring longingly into a mirror or out a window doesn’t cut it.
Much has been said of Nicolas Cage and his, uh, hair, but miscasting isn’t a problem when you have a character as poorly written as Johnny Blaze is. Cage does bring some of his Wicker Man “Not the bees!” facials to his first initial transformations into Ghost Rider, but that’s about all he brings to the part. Anyone could have played this part and been doomed to failure. I’d say Wes Bentley would have been more appropriately cast as Johnny Blaze if for no other reason than he looks to be about the right age. I realize Blaze is supposed to be a few years older than Roxanne, but seeing the two together, he still looks to have about a decade on her. I’m guessing there was some Joe Pesci My Cousin Vinny make-up work going on here to try and make Cage look younger than he is.
The story often pushes the actual good vs. evil plot to the side in favor of focusing on the romance, a failed attempt to spin Ghost Rider into a Beauty & the Beast love story. This was a humongous mistake. The only sparks generated between Mendes and Cage are the CGI ones emanating from his flaming skull. It ends up being one of those movie romances where the two leads only seem to be in love because that’s what the script dictates. Dispensing with the Roxanne character entirely would have had next to no impact on the outcome. She’s there to be Johnny’s love interest and to be put in danger – that’s it.
That brings up another example of how limp the screenplay is. Blackheart realizes how much Blaze values Roxanne and comments about using her as a weakness against the rider, and in the very next scene Sam Elliott’s character warns Johnny about Blackheart using any loved ones against him. The very next scene after that has Blackheart taking Roxanne captive, something so simple and obvious; yet, we needed two scenes before it containing dialogue to over-explain to us what was Blackheart was going to do next.
And if you’ve seen the trailer or the TV spots for the film, then you’ve pretty much seen its entire bag of visual tricks. You’ve seen Ghost Rider on his flaming motorcycle roaring down the street, on water, and up the side of skyscraper, and you’ve seen Ghost Rider whipping his fiery chain through the air. There’s not much else to it outside of the Penance Stare, his demonic-sounding voice, and his habit of stopping in his tracks, pointing his finger at someone and, after a dramatic pause, either uttering the word “Guilty!” or “Innocent!” After you’ve seen it once, it doesn’t seem all that cool the next time.
When Japanese director Shusuke Kaneko resurrected the giant monster Gamera for a new trilogy of films back in the late Nineties, he later said that there was a simple little trick he did to try and make the goofiness of a giant, flying, fire-breathing turtle seem a little more plausible. At no point during any of those three Gamera movies does anyone ever utter the word “turtle.” Sure, you fully realize you’re watching a creature that is obviously a gigantic bipedal turtle, but never does the movie point out the fact that you’re watching a giant turtle. No jokes are ever made about it being a giant turtle, and no one ever mutters a line about Gamera looking like a turtle.
The reason I say this is to contrast it with how the Ghost Rider screenplay does the exact opposite by constantly making a joke out of its fantastical title character by reminding us how the basic concept is rather silly. Elliott repeatedly calls Blaze “boney” or “bonehead,” Cage makes numerous fire-related cracks, some of Ghost Rider’s own antics have a humorous bent to it, and the dialogue is sprinkled with countless “wink, wink” jokes. Even if he is the good guy, Ghost Rider should have an element of menace to him; he is a flaming, skeletal badass after all. All that is undercut by jokes designed to continuously take any edge off of the story or the title character. The Spirit of Vengeance comes off as nothing more than a hokey CGI creation made all the more hokier by the movie conditioning us to view it and all the satanic mumbo jumbo going on around it as something to be made fun of. It kills the mood, the atmosphere, and the tone of any scene where the movie even tries to take itself seriously, which isn’t often. Good grief, the very scene where Johnny reveals his deep, dark secret to Roxanne is played entirely for laughs. The horror element of the story boils down to jump scares where Johnson has evil characters making scary faces pop up on the screen to roar.
When I think of the character of Ghost Rider, I think old school metal music by Black Sabbath or Metallica. The movie version brings to mind something by Firehouse – a pity they didn’t last long enough to provide a song for the film’s soundtrack. The movie is a totally lightweight venture aimed at middle school boys, and even on that level it just doesn’t work.
Then there’s the scene where Sam Elliott is stitching up a knife wound on Blaze’s shoulder that he suffered the night before as the rider when giving the Penance Stare to a street thug. So human Blaze maintains wounds he suffered as Ghost Rider? Yet he suffered no ill effects of getting crushed by a speeding semi-truck mere minutes before getting stabbed?
And where the hell did that damn swamp come from out in the middle of the desert?
The creative vacuum that is the story, the punny nature of the material, the totally vapid love story, the never-quite-convincing special effects, the old sage mentoring the new hero, the wimpy villain whose goal is just a generic lust for power … Everything about the way Mark Steven Johnson went about making Ghost Rider gave off the vibe of being exactly the way that it would have been done if it had been made back in the mid-1990s as a TV movie pilot. Except for the $120 million budget, I could totally have seen this movie being one of those “Action Pack” movies from 1995, those weekly TV movies airing in syndication that eventually led to Tekwar and Kevin Sorbo’s Hercules getting their own series. This would have fit in perfectly. Last week Knight Rider 2010, this week Brian Bloom is The New Bandit, and next week the world premiere of Marvel Comics’ Ghost Rider.
A total misfire.
1 1/2 out of 5
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