Comic book movies seem to have the same hierarchy that comic book characters do. There are first-tier characters who are well engrained in the non-comic reading public’s consciousness like Superman or Spider-Man that get the big budget summer blockbusters. Second-tier characters who may not resonate as much outside of fandom circles who are lucky enough to get a film adaptation made of their exploits find these films given much smaller budgets and hitting the silver screen in the off-peak winter months. Ghost Rider, a Faustian tale by way of Evel Knieval, lies in a fuzzy area between the two- a second-tier character from publisher Marvel Comics stable given a film budget over $100 million but a release date that was moved from a release date last summer to mid-February.
World famous motorcycle stuntman Johnny Blaze (Nicholas Cage) has survived numerous accidents that should have paralyzed or killed him. His pit crew – headed up by Donal Logue in a small, thankless role – seems to have an angel sitting on his shoulder. Nothing could be further from the truth though, as a teenaged Johnny had made a deal with Mephistopheles (Peter Fonda) to cure Johnny’s father’s cancer in exchange for Johnny’s soul. Several years later, after keeping a watchful eye on his “investment,” Mephistopheles returns to collect on his deal with Blaze by turning him into the flaming, skeletal Ghost Rider. In order for Blaze to win his soul back, he must stop Mephistopheles’ son Blackheart (Wes Bentley) from obtaining a contract for a thousand souls that would give him the power to overthrow his father as ruler of the underworld. Helping Blaze understand his new role as “the Devil’s bounty hunter” is a mysterious cemetery Caretaker (Sam Elliot) who has his own secrets.
Visually, Ghost Rider is definitely one of the more interesting characters in comics. However, a walking, talking flaming skeleton definitely poses challenges for a visual effects crew to convincingly recreate in a live action motion picture. However, the effects crew hired for the film has done a remarkable job in creating a believable looking Ghost Rider for this film. Unfortunately writer/director Mark Steven Johnson hasn’t bothered to create any interesting action to put the character through. The fight scenes that Ghost Rider engages in with Blackheart‘s hench-demons are rather short and perfunctory, displaying not a lot of visual imagination.
Lack of imagination isn’t the only thing that the script offers up though. There are plot holes and internal inconsistencies that riddle the screenplay. If Blackthorn and his cohorts aren’t able to attack Blaze at the Caretaker’s cemetery because it is considered hallowed ground, how can they attack him in a church during the film’s finale? If, as we are told ion the film’s opening narration that every generation has a Ghost Rider, how come we learn later on in the film that the last time there was a Rider was 150 or so years ago? If the Caretaker could only turn into the Ghost Rider one last time, why waste it riding next to Blaze to his final confrontation with Mephistopheles to only turn around and leave Blaze to go into the fight alone?
It’s a shame that the script is so lacking, as Cage definitely is working hard to make Johnny Blaze an interesting character, haunted by his own personal demons. Unfortunately, the screenplay doesn’t give him much to work with. Eva Mendes fares even worse, stuck with the perfunctory “Woman-from-the-heroes-past-turned-third-act-hostage” role. Fonda oozes an aura of quiet menace as Mephistopheles, yet Bentley as his son Blackheart merely comes off as a bratty Goth kid in need of a smack.
The failure of the film sits squarely on the shoulders of Johnson. His previous comic book adaptation, 2003’s Daredevil, showed that he understands how to make a good comic book film adaptation. The subsequently released Daredevil: Director’s Cut on DVD showed a learning curve that set comic book fans’ expectations high for Ghost Rider. Unfortunately, instead of a super-charged, supernatural-tinged comic adaptation, Ghost Rider is a highly-polished chrome covered motorcycle that wants to race but has nothing but sand in its gas tank.