The Theory of Chaos

Sunday, February 18, 2007

MOVIE REVIEW - Ghost Rider

Full review behind the jump

Ghost Rider

: Mark Steven Johnson
: screen story and screenplay by Mark Steven Johnson, based on the Marvel comic
: Avi Arad, Steven Paul, Michael DeLuca, Gary Foster
: Nicolas Cage, Eva Mendes, Wes Bentley, Sam Elliott, Peter Fonda, Donal Logue

We live in an age where visual effects animators can put just about any old thing you can imagine on the cinema screen, which makes comic book fantasies like
Ghost Rider possible. But all that wondrous technology can’t stop people from writing scenes where one character declares: “You’re going down!” and the other retorts “I don’t think so!” My action figures used to have conversations like that, and I didn’t presume to charge admission for it.

I wonder what Mark Steven Johnson, whose 2003 adaptation of
Daredevil was similarly pretty and shallow, thought to himself as he set those two lines of dialogue on the page. Did he lean back in his chair, nod to himself, and think “Yes sir, that’s as good as it gets, right there!” Or was he too enraptured by the image of Nicolas Cage’s head turning into a flaming skull to notice what his devil fingers were typing?

Cage is an Academy Award-winner, one of the dynamic talents of his generation, and a life-long comic fan to boot. He named his son Kal-el – something the casual fan does not do. It’s taken until now for him to finally realize a comic book movie of his own. He is, visibly, too excited about it to contain himself, and Johnson is too excited about having someone with Cage’s gifts in the starring role to restrain him. And so the movie entertains in fits and starts because of Cage’s manic inventiveness, but this entertainment value, at best, has nothing to do with the story, and at worst, works at jarring right angles to any attempt at emotional depth.

Cage plays Johnny Blaze, whose father (Brett Cullen) raised him in the family business of motorcycle stunt riding for a traveling carnival. But as young Blaze (Matt Long) is on the cusp of manhood, his father is dying of lung cancer, which is when cagey old Mephistopheles (Peter Fonda) appears, offering to take the tumors away in exchange for little Johnny’s soul. I’m not sure why the normally-understated Fonda is in this showy role, except that someone thought they’d earn points for putting him in a movie with motorcycles in it. He looks satisfied to deliver arrhythmic line readings and collect a handsome paycheck.

Johnny Blaze takes the deal but loses Dad anyway – fate is cruel that way. Despondent, he abandons the young sweetheart Roxanne (Raquel Alessi) he wanted to elope with. I really know nothing about these two lovers except that they are both photogenic, and learn nothing more than this when Roxanne appears in adult form played by Eva Green. She’s now a kind of free-roaming TV journalist, filing reports from any random event imaginable and asking inane questions at each. This job does nothing to inform her behavior, it simply gives her a good reason to be in every scene. Which is sort of the problem of the whole picture – Mark Steven Johnson knows everything about how to make a movie except how to consider what real people might do or feel in the scenarios he’s concocting.

His visual vocabulary is entirely borrowed from better filmmakers – in this picture we have frequent rip-offs from Terminator 2: Judgment Day, whose effects were cruder but will date better because of their excellently-mounted context – and when it comes to the emotional content of the scene he’s like a blind man banging away at random piano keys. I think this is why he’s incapable of reining in Cage’s propensity to graft eccentric details on his characters, he’s having too much fun to think about anything like the integrity of the story.

I confess to laughing frequently when Cage, as the grown-up Blaze, goes all wiggy, or demonstrates his addictions to jellybeans, TV shows about monkeys, or the music of the Carpenters. But what does that have to do with the price of rice, as they say? Aren’t we supposed to be watching him because he’s a man who sold his soul to the Devil? He’s built a career out of increasingly ludicrous stunt jumps – this is a man who either wants to die or is not sure he even can, why spend so much time on what his favorite candy is?

Anyway, the demon has finally come to collect on his debt. He turns Blaze into The Ghost Rider, the Devil’s Bounty Hunter, who collects souls and otherwise enforces his whims on this earthly plane. As The Rider, he turns into a flaming skeleton in leather, the sort of thing eighth-grade metal fans doodle in their spiral notebooks. He has superhuman strength, a punk attitude, and the ability to roast guilty souls with a trick called the Penance Stare. His bike undergoes a similar metamorphosis, and in demonic form can perform tricks like driving underwater and up the sides of buildings.

The Rider’s mission is to capture the Devil’s son, Blackheart (Wes Bentley), who is trying to unseat Dad by finding a long-missing contract with the names of 1,000 souls on it. It was stolen from the Devil many years ago by a former rider. Blackheart, who can suck out peoples’ lives with a fingertip, will kill whomever he has to in order to claim those souls, and he’ll kill pretty much anyone else he encounters, well, just because. Powers aside he’s the sort of villain who never minds taking time off from his scheme to snarl at the camera to remind us he’s scary, and Johnson embraces the cheap horror jolt as if it were high filmmaking craft handed down from Eisenstein.

Blaze, understandably nonplussed by how his head now explodes in the presence of evil, gets the plot explained very slowly to him by The Caretaker, who is played by Sam Elliott as a supernatural extension of his role from The Big Lebowski. After The Rider is knifed his first night on the job, The Caretaker stitches up his wound. In a later scene The Rider is plugged by hundreds of bullets – I guess The Caretaker has a lot of thread.

I don’t want to completely discount the idea of a movie starring a vengeful skeleton who dresses and acts like a Ramones fan. Demons and flames and semi-sentient motorcycles, good action could be had from these elements. This adaptation of Ghost Rider, though, doesn’t even want to try. It’s short on action, short on angst, short on sense, long on Johnson superficially aping his betters and long on Nicolas Cage being quirky. I always enjoy watching Cage’s twitchy side – That’s Entertainment, as they say – but if that’s what you intend to showcase, why bring in the flaming skull at all? There ought to be a better answer than Because They Can.


  • Whatever happened to Wes Bentley? First, a non-Steve Coogan Winterbottom film, then soccer balls with Gerard Butler. And now "Ghost Rider". I recall a famed ComicCon exchange between Mark Steven Johnson and a "fan", concerning the quality of
    "Daredevil". Flashforward to this year's ComicCon: "Ghost Rider? WTF?"

    By Anonymous Michael De Luca, at 10:27 PM  

  • I've never seen it, but apparently the Daredevil director's cut has its advocates. I have a hard time imagining what could make it good enough that I'd sit through it again.

    Judging by role choice alone, Bentley is an odd duck. He could have had anything he wanted after American Beauty. I had heard he was tapped for one of the leads in Pearl Harbor then dropped out. That's to his credit, at least.

    By Blogger Nick, at 11:01 PM  

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