Now this time was a really difficult decision. On the one hand, we have confessed comic geek Nicholas Cage finally fulfilling his dream of portraying a Marvel character, and on the other, Chris Cooper playing one of those fascinating morally ambiguous characters that he does so well. I don’t know what he’s like in real life, but on screen, he makes me nervous, in a really good way. But I’m a confessed comic geek myself, and I remember reading Ghost Rider on Saturday afternoons, and in the end, nostalgia carried the day.
And it worked: I feel like I’ve spent the afternoon lying on my bed reading comics. That was one hour and forty-five minutes of scenery-chewing acting, over-the-top demons, crackling hellfire, crazy plotlines, and major property destruction. There were shots that looked just like they should be drawn into comic-panel form and printed up for kids to spend their lunch money on. It’s not going to attract anything like the Spider-Man fan following — you don’t need to be a geek to enjoy the Spider-Movies — but if you are a geek like me, this could really be your thing.
The lead scenery chewer is Peter Fonda as Mephistopheles. When the young Johnny Blaze, budding motorcycle stunt rider, learns that his father and teacher is dying of lung cancer, good old Meph appears to say that he can fix everything. All he needs is for Johnny to sign on the dotted line, and his father will be whole and healthy again. Oh, and Johnny will be minus one soul, but he wasn’t really using that anyway, was he? Johnny never actually does sign, but a drop of his blood splashes onto the line, and Meph calls that good enough. I think a good lawyer could do a lot with that loophole, though.
But because the devil is Peter Fonda, Blaze Senior has a miraculous recovery from his cancer, only to die before his son’s eyes when a stunt goes wrong. Johnny turns his back on his girlfriend Roxanne (Eva Mendes), and rides off into the sunset.
But wait! The movie’s not over yet. Years later, Johnny is now a world-famous stunt driver, performing unheard-of jumps and crashing repeatedly in ways that should snap his neck like a twig, but he hardly notices. He has his own TeamBlaze (they don’t seem to do much, but it is cool to have your very own team), video games based on his career, and a Q score that’s off the charts. I doubt if even Evel Knievel attracted autograph hounds and groupies like he does. He also seems to have an unhealthy fascination with television, jellybeans (he “drinks” them out of a martini glass, but only red and yellow ones), monkeys, and music of The Carpenters (yikes), but he’s apparently rich enough that these are only considered amusing eccentricities.
|Nope, you’ll never see this made into a movie…
Roxy reappears (you know she had to) as a TV reporter, and Johnny views her return as a sign. It is, but only a sign of terrible evil lurking around the corner, not the beacon of hope our hero’s looking for. Meph is being challenged by four upstart demons (or maybe three elementals and one demon; I’m not sure), and everyone’s after a contract from the Old West, a contract that promises the holder one thousand of the most evil souls you could ask for. The souls are all hanging out in the Biggest Little Evil City in the World, San Venganza. And yes, that is Spanish for vengeance. One thing this movie is not, is subtle. But then, Ghost Rider has never been particularly subtle, so that’s okay.
All the comic trademarks are there: the spiked leather outfit, the bike that transforms into a wicked burning thing, the fireballs, the chain, everything. I always thought a chain a seriously unwieldy weapon, but he does okay with it, using it to beat up Blackheart’s cronies pretty handily and send them back to Hell, or the elements, or wherever they came from. I’m not sure they’re true demons, since they do go down pretty easily. Blackheart is Meph’s main adversary, and he makes up for the others by being really, really hard to take down. There’s also Sam Elliott, almost the stereotypical American cowboy actor, playing the Caretaker, who helps the poor bewildered Johnny figure out what’s going on — not, as far as I remember, an actual character from the comic, but very in keeping with the spirit of Ghost Rider, and a great little over-the-top part for Sam.
There are a couple of bits that seem like homages to Terminator 2 for some reason — Roxy channels Linda Hamilton and gets to shoot a bad guy several times with a pump shotgun before it runs out of ammo, for instance. I’m not sure those were really meant to be there — shouldn’t they be giving nods to Spider-Man instead, if they’re going to bother? And don’t pay too much attention to the timing of anything. Days and nights fly by, and journeys that usually take minutes suddenly seem to take hours. But seriously, if you’ve just paid money for a movie that you know features burning skulls, demons, and flaming motorcycles that can ride on water, you shouldn’t be expecting a lot of logic on top of all that.
My personal, comic-geek ranking? Three and a half idols. I have to add, though, that anyone who isn’t willing to suspend every ounce of disbelief in their bodies is going to rank this more around two idols. Spider-Man manages to stay true to his roots and still appeal to a very wide audience, but Ghost Rider isn’t built that way. There really aren’t any shades of grey in the Rider’s world, only Guilty and Innocent, and I put those capital letters there very deliberately. It’s a thoroughly improbable, wild little action flick that doesn’t pretend to be anything else, so just sit back and enjoy the ride. Oh, but if you have a tendency to motion sickness, beware of the opening title sequence. I almost sent popcorn flying everywhere.