His curse became his power.
I’ve got a theory. I think there are actually two Nicholas Cages. One is the serious dramatic actor from Leaving Las Vegas and Adaptation, and the other is the twitchy, bug-eyed, shrieking Nicholas Cage who keeps popping up in Hollywood blockbusters. Guess which one stars in Ghost Rider?
Johnny Blaze (Cage) is a world-famous motorcycle stunt rider, who seemingly cheats death time and time again. Thing is, he really has cheated death. Years earlier, Johnny sold his soul to the devil (Peter Fonda, Easy Rider) to cure his father’s cancer. But—surprise!—the devil tricked Johnny, who now lives his life in loneliness, knowing he won’t die until that day the devil shows up to collect.
The day finally comes when a demonic fellow named Blackheart (Wes Bentley, American Beauty) shows up on Earth seeking an ancient contract containing thousands of evil souls. He plans to use the power of these souls to outmuscle the devil. To defeat Blackheart, ol’ Mephistopheles turns to Johnny Blaze, giving Johnny the power of the Ghost Rider. Now, at night and in the presence of evil, Johnny becomes a flaming skeletal spirit of vengeance.
Johnny’s transformation also comes on the heels of his reunion with his childhood sweetheart Roxanne (Eva Mendes, Hitch), who wants back in his life. With the help of mysterious cemetery caretaker (Sam Elliott, The Big Lebowski), Johnny might be able to understand what he’s going through and how he might use his powers of hellfire for good instead of evil.
A lot of critics and fans dismissed Ghost Rider during its theatrical run, calling it corny or worse. Yes, it is corny, but writer-director Mark Steven Johnson (Daredevil) does do a lot of good in the film. First is the visual look of Ghost Rider himself. The “flaming skull plus black leather jacket” is an unendingly cool image, made even cooler when you add chains and metal spikes into the mix. I have to admit, all the CGI fire in the movie impressed me. Sure, it might not look photo-real, but this isn’t just fire, it’s spooky supernatural hellfire, so it should look a little unreal. Similarly, the action scenes might defy numerous laws of physics, but they still get the blood pumping, at least a little.
Unfortunately, a few neat effects don’t equal a satisfying film overall. For one, Nicholas Cage is a little less “action hero” and a little more “goofball.” A lot of the strange things he does in this movie, such as listening to the Carpenters or “drinking” jellybeans from a martini glass, were improvisational bits Cage added during filming. These make his character seem ridiculous rather than tormented by an inner demon. And he’s not the only offender. All the fans who wanted Wes Bentley to play Spider-Man will shut up after seeing him overacting here. He plays Blackheart as a moustache-twirling melodrama villain, one step away from just looking into the camera and saying, “Check out how evil I am.”
The movie’s biggest downfall, though, isn’t the questionable acting; it’s the borderline nonsensical story. The mythology and its various rules are confusing, to the point where viewers will stop in the middle of the action and say, “Hey, wait a minute…”
Stuff from Ghost Rider that doesn’t make sense:
• When Johnny turns into Ghost Rider, just what kind of transformation takes place, exactly? Is Ghost Rider a separate entity that dwells within him, or is it some manifestation of Johnny’s personality? There are a few scenes with Johnny trying to control the Rider’s power, but does he ever truly gain that control?
• What does Blackheart want, exactly? If his plan is to overthrow the devil and rule Hell, then why not? After all, we already know the devil is a bad guy, so maybe he should be overthrown. If Blackheart’s plan is to raise hell on Earth or some such, then that should have been spelled out more clearly.
• Early on, it’s pointed out that demonic types can’t fight while on sacred ground. We all know how much this rule complicated life for the clan MacLeod, but it isn’t used with as much success here. Instead, Blackheart at one point shrugs and says that the rule doesn’t apply to him, and then it’s not mentioned again. In that case, why establish it in the first place?
• There’s a big “hero moment” in latter part of the film in which Ghost Rider and the caretaker team up to take on the bad guys. But, after a special effects-laden ride across the desert, the caretaker turns around and leaves right before the big battle. So, why the ride?
Another bone of contention among fans and critics has been the movie’s sense of humor. In the bonus features, a producer says the intent of Ghost Rider was “not a genre movie, but a tentpole movie.” They wanted the movie to appeal to as broad an audience as possible, including women, children, grandparents, cabbage farmers, etc., and not just comic book readers. I can’t blame them for wanting to make a profit, but I wonder if this attitude hampered their storytelling. This is a story about Satan and demons and motorcycles and emotional torment, and these topics don’t really lend themselves to a family-friendly atmosphere. But the creators gave it their best shot, adding Donal Logue (Grounded for Life) as Johnny’s comic relief sidekick, and giving Johnny silly self-referential lines like, “I feel like my skull’s on fire, but I’m good.” I feel that the humor in the film will just make viewers groan and take them out of the story.
I would have been happier with a leaner, meaner Ghost Rider, one that embraced the darkness of the subject matter and really ran with it. But no. Instead of an intense, emotional romance at the heart of the story, we get a cute romantic comedy-type relationship. Instead of some truly monstrous henchmen for Blackheart, we get three Rob Zombie look-alikes with unoriginal powers based on earth, wind, and water. Instead of being haunted by his past, Johnny hides from it by laughing at monkey kung fu on television. If the movie took itself more seriously, maybe it wouldn’t have had as much box-office cash, but it would have made for a better film.
Keep in mind, I didn’t hate the movie. Peter Fonda and Sam Elliot bring a nice combination of fun and professionalism to their roles, and Matt Long (Jack and Bobby) and Raquel Alessi (Standoff) are both great as the younger versions of Johnny and Roxanne at the start of the film. Plus, the many “money shots” of Ghost Rider in action are all nicely done. Still, I can’t help but feel that a potential for a richer and more powerful story has been lost here.
One area in which Ghost Rider doesn’t disappoint is the video and audio on this DVD. This is a movie with a lot of blues and oranges competing for screen dominance, and yet the colors remain strong and vivid throughout, with no bleeding or other such flaws. As for the sound, crank it up. Every speaker gets a workout, with a lot of sounds coming from out of the rear speakers for that extra-special “jump out of your seat” effect. The “penance stare” sequences also make great use of sound, with chaotic screams and effects filling the room. And let’s not forget that Sam Elliott’s voice is one of the reason bass speakers were invented.
Sony has loaded this two-disc set with enough bonus features to fill up the soul crystal of Zarathos (raise your hand if you get that reference). Disc One features two commentary tracks, one with the director and a special effects expert, and the other with producer Gary Foster (Elektra). These are good, going over a lot of the small details in the film and a ton of behind-the-scenes info, but they repeat a lot of the same information. There’s also a trailer gallery with peeks at several upcoming Sony releases. Disc Two houses a three-part documentary on the making of the film, with the first two parts about the production, and the third about post-production. Overall, it’s a very well-made insider’s look at all the hard work that went into Ghost Rider. Even better is “Sin and Salvation,” a four-part look at the character’s history in comics, from the 1970s to the present. Writers, artists, and editors who have worked on the comics are interviewed, including Roy Thomas, Gary Ploog, Joe Quesada, Axel Alonzo, Mark Texeira, and Clayton Crain, among others. For fans of the comic, this documentary is a must-see. Disc Two also contains some animatics for a few of the big special-effects sequences, showing how they looked in an earlier, rougher, CGI form. As DVD special editions keep getting less and less “special,” it’s nice to see such an excellent collection of extras this time out.
Also note that this is the extended version of the movie, with never-before-seen footage added to it. For this disc, the movie has dropped its original PG-13 rating for a more hip and daring “Not Rated” status. But all the new scenes are small character moments, mostly about Roxanne being an investigative reporter tracking down clues about who Ghost Rider is. None of the new scenes contain any sex or violence, and the theatrical version didn’t have a whole lot of sex and violence to begin with. So why the rating change? Who knows?
It deserves to be said: The creators have taken significant liberties with the source material. Johnny Blaze is a professional stunt cyclist with a girlfriend named Roxanne, just like in the comics. Many other elements of the movie, however, including the characters of Blackheart and the caretaker, come from a later run of the comics, in which a kid named Danny Ketch was the Rider’s alter ego, not Blaze. Some have even argued that Ghost Rider’s look in the film is more true to the Ketch version than the Blaze version.
I’m of two minds about this. On one hand, Johnny Blaze’s original adventures are filled with all kinds of wild stories with great villains, enough for dozens of Ghost Rider movies. On the other hand, the creators state that they wanted to take their favorite elements from each era of the character and incorporate them into the film, and that’s understandable, especially when looking at the striking artwork from the Ketch years. In my eyes, none of the changes to the characters in the film version seem too blasphemous, but if you’re hysterically passionate about Ghost Rider comics, you might not like what they’ve done here.
Ghost Rider is an okay movie, and you could do a lot worse for a Saturday afternoon time-killer. Except that there’s a truly great story buried under the surface struggling to get out—and it never quite gets there. If you’re curious to see it, you’re better off hopping on your fiery hell-cycle and heading to the video rental place for this one.