Rattling the Comic Book Cage
Posted by Dresonic on February 22, 2007
Pointing out that Ghost Rider is not very good seems like a fool’s exercise, especially now. After all, it’s easy to decry the messenger, especially when a movie’s Presidents’ Day weekend release generates a record-setting gross of $51.5 million. Still, the subgenre of comic book adaptations needn’t automatically lend itself to critical derision, as the warm critical embrace of the Spider-Man films, Christopher Nolan’s Batman reboot or even the more mixed but passionate critics’ defenses of graphic novel flicks like V For Vendetta and Sin City fittingly demonstrate. This is all to say that I went into the film with an open mind this weekend, alongside a chattering and primed general audience. I genuinely love me some Nicolas Cage – even in tony dreck – and though I was lukewarm on Daredevil, writer-director Mark Steven Johnson’s previous film, I’d heard good things about the extended cut he was allowed to release on DVD, and how that fleshed out some of the story points in interesting fashion.
|Columbia Pictures Photo|
A surprise and disappointment then, to wade through Ghost Rider, a glossy, big-budget affair that in almost every significant way behind the camera – and in more than a few ways in front of it – feels like both a fatally compromised and hopelessly amateurish production. This is the type of film for which the actors involved carefully describe it in press junkets and interviews as “a lot of fun” rather than good; they talk about how much they enjoyed making it instead of how they’re proud of it. The story centers on young circus stuntman Johnny Blaze, who as a teenager makes a deal with Mephistopheles (Peter Fonda) in order to cure his father of cancer. Because he’s such a wily trickster, the devil makes momentarily good on his promise, only to then promptly turn around and kill the old man in a fiery (slow-motion, naturally) accident. Lacking the wherewithal or ability to summon Johnny Cochran to argue semantics, Blaze resigns himself to the notion that the devil will at some point come a-callin’ with a favor, something the devil drives home by touching Blaze, which gives him, seemingly, really bad indigestion. Cut to several years later. All grown up, Blaze (now Cage) has gone on to achieve celebrity as a death-defying motorcycle showman. No one knows about his curse-in-waiting, least of all reporter Roxanne Simpson (Eva Mendes), the woman that teenaged Johnny spurned in theory to protect. All that changes when the devil calls in his chit and Johnny morphs into a flaming-skulled bounty hunter of rogue demons.
|Columbia Pictures Photo|
His quarry: the devil’s power-hungry son, Blackheart (Wes Bentley), who’s hell-bent (ha!) on collecting a contract of mythic proportions that will apparently allow him to supplant his father. Aiding Blaze and providing the audience with chunky passages of grizzled exposition is the mysterious Caretaker (Sam Elliott, doing an impression of himself doing an impression of Kris Kristofferson). Set in Texas but shot in Australia, Ghost Rider feels far more anonymous than dustily iconic. Courtesy of its state-of-the-art flaming skull effects – which leave behind the now-laughable melting faces of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom – the movie provides a few fleeting moments of goofball entertainment, though they’re far between and none can really be charitably described as satisfyingly cathartic or, for the most part, even intentional. Why does Mephistopheles not take a more proactive role in the power struggle with his son? Or why has the devil not used his highly skilled minion to procure this important contract – given its power via buy-in-bulk souls – in the intervening years? And just prior to the final showdown, why does the Caretaker spring to life, only to join Blaze for a ride across the desert and then tell him that’s as far as he can go, that that’s all he can do? Who knows, really. In Ghost Rider, massive story incongruities are merely shrugged off, over and over.
|Columbia Pictures Photo|
In their stead, Cage gives another loose-limbed, zonked-out hero performance, amusingly channeling a smidgen of Elvis in a few scenes. To his great credit, he knows what kind of movie he’s in, and certainly enlivens almost every scene he graces, including an interrogation in which he blithely calls out the “good cop-bad cop” of the duo questioning him. The problem is, even though he’s the lead, and thus in most of the movie, almost every scene around him feels saggy and irrelevant. And if Cage is fun to watch, his chemistry with Mendes is nonexistent. It doesn’t help, certainly, that the woefully under-sketched Roxanne isn’t an intrepid reporter out for a scoop, she just blandly exists, popping up whenever Blaze needs to feel something or be goaded into some sort of action. Lest one mistake this all merely for buzz-kill critical pooh-poohing, it should be noted that the fan-boy bathroom chatter after the screening trended at least 3:1 against the movie, roughly in line with the movie’s aggregate Rotten Tomatoes score. “Jesus…” one goateed chap sporting a Green Lantern T-shirt said to his friend. “Well, what did you expect, really?” came the reply. They seemed to object most to Ghost Rider’s penchant for hammy obviousness, as evidenced by something like a scene early in the movie, when Mephistopheles first propositions Blaze. “What, do you run a show?” Blaze asks, perfectly setting the devil up for the response, “The greatest show on Earth.” OK, fine. On the nose, certainly, but winkingly in step with its demographic. Johnson’s Ghost Rider, though, doesn’t stop there. He holds on Fonda’s leering grin for a long beat, then inserts some overtly sinister lightning and a clap of thunder, and then, ladling on the blatancy like a cheap cologne, cuts to a close-up of the devil’s skull cane. Thanks, we get it. Now can we have some of that $51.5 million back?
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