The hardest part of reviewing Ghost Rider in a totally balanced, unbiased fashion stems from simply silencing my inner comic-book dork long enough to get my thoughts down on paper. For any fan (or fanatic, for that manner), it can be hard to see what changes have been made to your favorite works in their journeys to celluloid. The Lord of the Rings trilogy had whole chunks of narrative excised out for running time. Spider-Man and the Hulk saw their radioactive origins refitted with more bioengineered roots (genetic engineering is, after all, the A-Bomb of the 21st century). Ghost Rider, while certainly quite changed between his four-color and film versions, perhaps drew the fewest complaints from me on the changes to the character, and the most on its flaws simply as a movie.
The story centers on young stunt-rider Johnny Blaze, who sells his soul to Mephistopheles (a spine-tingling Peter Fonda) in order to save his father from terminal cancer. In a proper Faustian ploy, Old Scratch cures Papa Blaze?s lung cancer, only to kill him the next day in a truly Evel fashion (daredevil puns! Ha!), reminding Johnny that someday Mephistopheles will come for him per their bargain.
Fast-forward in time, and a grown-up Johnny Blaze (Nicholas Cage) is on top of the world, loved by millions as the world?s most accomplished stunt biker. His boyhood sweetheart, Roxanne (Cuban cutie Eva Mendes) has just re-entered his life. He finally feels like he can move past the demons of his childhood, at least until the Devil comes back to cash in on their contract: Johnny will accept (unwillingly) the mantle of the Ghost Rider, a flaming-skulled bounty hunter in the Devil?s employ who tracks down the wicked to send them to their rightful place in Hell. His first and only assignment? Find Mephistopheles? son Blackheart, who seeks his father?s contract on San Venganza (subtle name, huh?), a document binding a thousand evil souls, and destroy him before he can use the contract to overthrow his father?s rule and create Hell on Earth.
Sound complicated? It really is, and unfortunately writer-director Mark Steven Johnson expects the audience to accept things as he throws them out into the mix, no matter how vague they may be. The movie has a feel like he was simply making this stuff up on the fly, and it begins to wear on you. Sure, I can accept that there are three fallen angels on Earth (Gressil, Abigor, and Wallow), but why are they so eager to help Blackheart overthrow his father? How does the Ghost Rider make changes to the metal around him, changing his normal motorcycle into a Hades-born chopper, or a rifle into a hellfire-spewing shotgun? I certainly understand that one has to suspend disbelief, but when whole sections of the plot and major turning points rely on a deus ex machina, they become a little too convenient. It reminds me of the 1950?s, where Superman would just constantly develop new powers to get himself out of whatever pickle he had gotten into for that issue.
However, if you can turn off your brain for two hours, there?s certainly quite a bit to like in here. As mentioned before, Peter Fonda?s turn as Mephistopheles is pure gold, and Nicholas Cage proves to be quite likable as the conflicted Blaze. Sam Elliott plays a grizzled old cowboy (certainly a stretch for him) who knows more than he?s willing to let on, and Eva Mendes spends most of the movie showcasing her cleavage and notorious Latin booty. The effects for the Rider are top-notch, and the action set pieces have some definite appeal to them, but unfortunately they seem to be just that: set pieces, without a hell of a lot of glue to bind them all together. Hopefully the sure-bet sequel (the movie doubled its budget in box-office returns) can address these issues, and deliver a more satisfying second outing for Ol? Flamehead.