Director: Mark Steven Johnson
When you hear the word "superhero," images of people decked out in capes and spandex tights probably come to mind. However, one superhero stands out as being cut from a completely different cloth than other comic book superheroes: Ghost Rider. While the name was originally used by two separate cowboy titles by two separate publishers, it is a name most recognizably associated with a supernatural stunt biker named Johnny Blaze. Created by writer Gary Friedrich and artist Mike Ploog, Blaze made his first appearance in the fifth issue of Marvel Spotlight (published August 1972) and got his own monthly series from Marvel Comics shortly thereafter. Though the series came to an end in 1983 and a new Ghost Rider was eventually introduced, it was Johnny Blaze that got the nod when it came time for the Rider to join other Marvel characters with his own cinematic adaptation. But getting the movie into theaters, however, would be a long hard road out of developmental hell. Scheduling conflicts with the cast and crew, script issues, and studio changes ended up delaying production until early 2005. Columbia Pictures even changed the movie's expected August 2006 release date on two occasions, eventually settling on February 16, 2007. When the movie finally did see its release, it was met with overwhelmingly negative reviews from the professional critics. But screw those guys, I enjoyed it a lot and I'll tell you why.
As the movie begins, we're introduced to Johnny Blaze (Matt Long), a teenager who teams with his father Barton (Brett Cullen) as a duo of death-defying stunt bikers for a traveling carnival. After he discovers that his father is dying of an untreatable lung cancer, Johnny is approached by Mephistopheles (Peter Fonda), who offers to cure Barton's cancer if Johnny will trade his soul. The young man is understandably leery at first, but ends up inadvertently accepting the deal when he accidentally pricks his finger and lets a single drop of his blood drip onto the contract Mephistopheles had presented him. That's a cheap way to do business, but nobody ever accused the devil of playing fair.
Johnny awakens the next morning, believing he's simply had a really bizarre dream. But it's no dream; his father's fit as a fiddle. At least he is for a little while, because it isn't long before a freak accident during their stunt show leads to Barton's tragic and untimely demise. Ah, irony; how I hate you, how I love you. Johnny starts making all kinds of wild accusations about who's at fault for the accident, but Mephistopheles retorts that it doesn't matter either way, since he still owns Johnny's soul and that he'll be coming to collect one day.
Years later, the adult Johnny Blaze (Nicolas Cage) has become an immensely famous stunt biker. Take Evel Knieval's fame and multiply it by a million, and you've got Johnny Blaze. Although he has achieved this recognition through unbelievably dangerous stunts, he is equally renowned for walking away from horrific crashes that would kill normal people. His manager and best friend Mack (Donal Logue) suggests that he has a guardian angel on his side, but Johnny thinks it's something else. And deep down, he knows it. He's spent his life regretting the decision he'd made, looking for a sign that he's getting closer to a second chance at the happy life he'd had before his deal with Mephistopheles was struck. And as he prepares for his next big stunt, he gets that sign in the form of Roxanne Simpson (Eva Mendes). The two had been madly in love with one another and even planned to elope, but after his father's death, Johnny fell into a pit of self-loathing and left her behind without a word. Roxanne became a television reporter in the years since, and her station has sent her to interview Johnny before his next stunt.
The pair hit it off and slowly begin to rekindle their relationship, but a scary, demonic wrench gets thrown into the gears. Shortly before a big date with Roxanne, Johnny is finally called upon by Mephistopheles, who needs Johnny to remedy a problem for him. Blackheart (Wes Bentley), the son of Mephistopheles, has arrived on Earth with the intention of locating and procuring a long-hidden contract that will give him access to a thousand wicked souls and enough power to overthrow both Hell and Earth. And Mephistopheles just can't have that. So he cashes in Johnny's half of their bargain, enlisting him to serve as the latest in a line of fiery skull-faced bounty hunters that carry the name "Ghost Rider." He charges his new Rider with eliminating Blackheart and his three minions, sweetening the pot by offering to return his soul if he is successful. With a little help from a mysterious cemetery caretaker (Sam Elliott), Johnny learns the basics of his newfound power as he searches for a way to stop Blackheart from reaching the contract while reclaiming his own soul.
I don't believe I'm being controversial when I say that Ghost Rider is a solidly B-list character. So I think it only makes sense for him to be translated into a wild B-movie. While I will admit that the movie has a preposterous story and some hammy acting, it's all handled in such a way that makes it entertaining and just plain fun to watch. Sure, there's a few moments that will probably make you roll your eyes. Sure, there's a few moments that are corny and don't really work. But no matter, because the movie tries with all its might to be entertaining, and I think it's a success.
Writer/director Mark Steven Johnson is no stranger to the world of comic book superheroes, having previously helmed Daredevil in 2003. And just like Daredevil, Ghost Rider might not be built on the strongest of foundations, but it has its moments. Johnson's screenplay is a mixed bag. Among the bad are its fair share of clichés, predictable spots, and groan-worthy bits of dialogue (the only time the line "you're going down" has worked was when Bruce Campbell said it to a decapitated head in Evil Dead 2), while I felt the villains were lame. A superhero movie is only as strong as its villains, and Blackheart and his three henchmen were totally weak. And I also got the impression that the henchmen played by Daniel Frederiksen, Mathew Wilkinson, and Laurence Breuls were only included in order to boost the number of action scenes. It didn't help anything that the three were disposed of relatively quickly, either. Why even include them at all if they're only going to get one scene a piece? That time could have been used to make Blackheart seem like more of a threat, but what do I know. However, Johnson balances the negatives with some positives. He gets the comedic bits right, and he includes a fun twist on a typical superhero movie cliché. You know how in most of these movies, conflict is created by the superhero trying to keep his girlfriend from finding out that he's the superhero? Batman, Superman, Spider-Man; they're all guilty of it. So what does Johnson do? He has Johnny come right out and confess to Roxanne that he's the Ghost Rider, and Roxanne treats him like he's out of his mind. It's the little moments like that that help save the script from complete mediocrity.
Johnson also helps to mask the script's inadequacies with his energetic direction. He and cinematographer Russell Boyd give us some fantastic camerawork that, when combined with the spectacular CGI effects, makes for a movie that is visually astounding. Johnson also makes sure to keep things going at a rapid pace, only really slowing down when we need to get the plot out of the way. This works in the movie's favor, since it is a movie driven by action sequences and exciting visuals, and slowing down would take away from that. And I have to compliment Johnson's idea to change the color of Ghost Rider's fire depending on his mood. There's the usual orange when he's all about business, then a soft blue to represent sadness and worry, then a rare transition to black for pain. It's pulled off nicely, and I think it was a great idea since it's not like skulls can emote or anything. Johnson's direction is bolstered by not only the CGI, but by Christopher Young's great score as well. Containing elements of both the western and horror genres, Young's music is quite effective in setting the mood and establishing the movie's atmosphere. A couple of classic rock songs are put to good use as well, so I'm not complaining about the music at all.
Last but not least is our cast. Nicolas Cage is supposedly a big fan of the Ghost Rider comics, and his devotion to the character shows. I don't know if he's the first guy I'd have thought of to hire to play Johnny Blaze, but Cage is quite effective. He plays the role with an Elvis-like rock star flair, and the eccentricities he gives the character sipping jelly beans from a martini glass, laughing his head off at videos of monkeys practicing karate, listening to the Carpenters to prepare himself for stunts make the character likeable and engaging. He also handles the dramatic scenes well, and his transformation scenes evidence a real knowledge of the character. In the scenes in which Johnny initially transforms into Ghost Rider, Cage exhibits tremendous agony that gives way to maniacal laughter as his flesh burns away. It shows that while the transition from man to monster causes Johnny pain, it gives the Rider pleasure; it's an interesting dichotomy that gives the character a certain subtle depth.
Eva Mendes is great as well, though I got the impression that her role was only there to serve two purposes: to be the token love interest, and to show off as much cleavage as possible so the 14-year-old boys in the audience will have something to watch between action sequences. But she's a lot of fun to watch, and Mendes and Cage have an amiable chemistry together that really makes their scenes work. Meanwhile, the character of Blackheart isn't all that great of a villain, but Bentley makes a good go at it. He at least tries, which I can respect. Our primary supporting actors, Peter Fonda and Sam Elliott, are both fantastic, but you wouldn't expect anything less from them. And in their very minor roles, Donal Logue, Brett Cullen, and Matt Long are fine.
Put it all together, and you've got a movie that, while not an all-time classic, is most certainly an entertaining way to spend two hours. I really don't get all the criticism against Ghost Rider; have people become so jaded by the artsy-fartsy pretentious crap that gets all the Oscar nominations every year that they just can't let themselves enjoy the simpler movies anymore? No, I wouldn't say that Ghost Rider is as good as Batman Begins or the first two Spider-Man movies, but it's still worth a watch. I mean, how many movies can say they have a stuntman forced to become a demon-fighting skeleton after getting the raw end of a Faustian deal he'd made years prior? What's not to like about that? So I'm going to give Ghost Rider three and a half stars, heavily leaning towards four, and a big thumbs-up. So go check it out, won't you?
Final Rating: ***½