It’s never a good sign when a studio refuses to screen a film in advance of its release date, as Columbia has done with their latest Marvel comics adaptation, Ghost Rider. It’s even worse, though, when a studio decides late in its marketing plan not to put a major star’s face on his movie’s posters, as has happened with Ghost Rider, as well. Nicolas Cage’s increasingly plastic surgery-enhanced mug disappeared from all Rider advertising sometime last fall, not long after his Wicker Man remake tanked at the box office. From Ghost Rider’s first promotional buzz mid-2006, it seemed as though the studio was banking on a Spider-Man-level hit, but neither the original source (never Marvel’s most popular comic, by a long shot) nor its assembled cast and crew (exemplified by consummate B-level helmer Mark Steven Johnson) can possibly approach the popularity or quality of that soon-to-be trilogy. And while Ghost Rider isn’t quite the disaster some people may expect, it’s certainly nothing to get excited about: a lackluster, made-by-committee dud, that’s neither trashy or outrageous enough to compensate for its by-the-numbers construction and execution.
Cage, in full-on cowboy Elvis mode, stars as Johnny Blaze, motorcycle stunt rider and inheritor of the dubious mantle of the “Ghost Rider,” a flaming-skulled avatar that acts as a kind of messenger boy for Mephistopheles (Peter Fonda, showing less menace here than he did as a more earth-bound devil in The Limey). Having made a deal with the dark one to cure his Evel Knievel-esque dad of cancer (in a too-lengthy series of flashbacks that not only open the film, but recur frequently throughout it), Blaze lives the rest of his life under the shadow of a curse, until his contract comes due just as he’s begun to turn his life around. Mephistopheles enlists Blaze’s servitude in order to stop his own son Blackheart (Wes Bentley, in a role that’s almost an afterthought in the screenplay) from obtaining an all-powerful relic that will allow him to cast the world into darkness and, I’m guessing, assume the throne of Hell for himself.
Blaze – a reckless, irresponsible guy who’s nevertheless good at heart – decides to use the powers he’s been granted against the devil, destroying only sinners and those who would harm the ones he loves (so we get lots of PG-13-safe scenes of him fighting with the police, yet causing them no harm). Meanwhile, his teenage sweetheart Roxanne Simpson (Eva Mendes, in one of the greatest miscasting catastrophes of the last few years) has returned to his life, acting as the requisite beacon of light amidst the darkness, and also, conveniently, as a victim for the bad guys to hold hostage at the climax. Also on his side is the Caretaker (Sam Elliott, in serious need of a bath and shave), a gravedigger who instructs Blaze in the lore of the Rider and, no surprise, holds his own secret that’s central to the story.
Nearly everything about Ghost Rider has a “seen it already” feel about it, and there are obvious reasons why. For one thing, two of its 10+ producers are David Goyer and Michael De Luca, both of whom worked on the Blade series at New Line, and that influence shows heavily in the overall construction of the film, from its plot device of a villain trying to obtain some sort of artifact that will allow him to rule the world, to its main character being stranded in the middle ground between good and evil; you also get the de rigeur grizzled advisor (Elliott subbing for Kris Kristofferson) and Donal Logue even shows up again as a comic relief sidekick. Furthermore, as with Johnson’s previous comic book foray, the headache-inducing Daredevil, Ghost Rider encounters problems by having a recognizable star cast as its lead hero – traditional box office wisdom dictates that you show the celebrity’s face out of costume, mask, makeup or, in this case, flaming skull, for as much as possible. With the Spider-Man series (at least in its initial film), Tobey Maguire was unknown enough that the film was able to concentrate more on the character than on the actor portraying him. Not so here – Cage plays his usual roguish man-child, complete with oddball quirks like listening to The Carpenters and downing jelly beans instead of liquor. Even when the Rider appears, it’s obviously still Cage doing the body acting, and there’s a good degree of unintentional humor in seeing a flaming skull-topped biker going through Elvis body motions, though not nearly enough to push the film into the delirious territory of David Hasselhoff’s Nick Fury or Dolph Lundgren’s Punisher adaptations.
Instead, the whole endeavor, except for an exciting carnival-set opening that promises lowbrow thrills the movie never delivers, has a ho-hum feeling about it, with most of the big setpiece scenes (like the bike ride down the side of the building or the Rider’s fight scenes with Blackheart’s “nephilim” demons) poorly constructed or over too soon. As you might expect, the film is nearly half CGI, and the Rider sequences are well-handled on the effects end – Cage’s transformation (seen only once in its full glory) is both grueling and, ahem, marvelous to watch – but the devil and demon effects get repetitive and tiresome and, like the central plotline itself, feel recycled from other, better films. And finally, like most comic book origin stories translated to film, Johnson has tried to cram way too much plot detail into the screenplay, covering not only Blaze’s past and origin as the Rider, but also his love affair with Roxanne, his deal with the devil, numerous comic-relief character-building scenes, a couple of action-packed motorcycle stunt sequences, and the main meat of the conflict with Blackheart, all in one 100-some minute movie.
The result is that characters – even main villain Bentley – disappear for extended stretches, and most scenes feel hurried and incomplete, Marvel and Columbia seemingly having been interested in not only resolving the single storyline of the film, but also creating a franchisable character they could work into multiple sequels. But unless the movie is an unexpected success this weekend – highly unlikely from this writer’s perspective – the future of the Ghost Rider is likely to be confined to direct-to-video or animated spinoffs without Cage or Mendes, and the producers will certainly be on the hunt for the next superhero property they can water down for mainstream release.