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Ghost Rider   D+

Columbia Pictures / Marvel Studios

Year Released: 2007
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Mark Steven Johnson
Writer: Mark Steven Johnson (based on the Marvel comic)
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Eva Mendes, Wes Bentley, Sam Elliott, Donal Logue, Matt Long, Peter Fonda, Brett Cullen, Raquel Alessi.

Review by Rob Vaux

There is a difference between merely loving a character and having a vision for a character. I have no doubt that Mark Steven Johnson loves Ghost Rider. He loved Daredevil too, producing a film version of that superhero which I adored (though many didn't). But then again, somebody else had a vision for Daredevil first: Frank Miller, whom Johnson cribbed liberally from during his adaptation. Ghost Rider never benefited from ideas as strong as Miller's -- wandering around the lower tiers of Marvel's pantheon, looking cool, but never really going anywhere. With the Ghost Rider movie, Johnson had a wonderful opportunity to remedy that condition. There's an intriguing setup, a lot of pulpy potential, and a hero whose powers just scream for A-list special effects. With a clearer sense of purpose, the film might have been... well, not great, but at least solid fun. Unfortunately, that purpose is nowhere to be seen here, and without a decent backbone, the entire endeavor collapses into a puddle of mush.

It begins with the hero himself, a figure few outside of comic-book fandom are familiar with. Ghost Rider makes a fatal mistake of assuming that his look will be enough to carry him over that hurdle. Certainly, the image of a fiery skeleton in a black leather jacket thunders with four-color cool. But who is he? How did he get that way? What can he do, who does he fight, and where do his weaknesses lie? Ghost Rider never really conveys the answers, though it clearly thinks it does. The "who" is Johnny Blaze (Nicolas Cage), a daredevil motorcyclist trying to welsh on a deal with the devil (Peter Fonda). The "how" is said deal, made to save Blaze's father from cancer and now forcing Johnny to hunt down damned souls who have escaped Satan's roving eye. After that, though, things get muddled. Powers? Um, he has some, like... uh... fire and stuff. Purpose? It shows up about an hour in, tacked on to some shaky character development and undergoing constant shifts in gear. Villains? A quartet of standard-issue demons, led by Wes Bentley's goth-boy run amok, and lacking even the basics of flair or pizzazz.

The screenplay, written by Johnson, takes far too many of those details for granted. Superman can skate without explanation because everybody more or less knows his deal. But we need a lot more information to get into Ghost Rider, and the film just doesn't provide it. Even something as awkward as a voice-over would at least establish the ground rules. As it is, however, we're left to infer all but the most general facts. The action scenes pitting Blaze against various adversaries are thus rendered confusing and haphazard -- all F/X and no motive. Johnson and editor Richard Francis-Bruce deliver them with little causality, ending fights for no particular reason and then speeding their hero off to another arbitrary bit of plot exposition. Need a mentor? Let's plop him down here! Time for an empty light show? Let's schedule one there! The effects are slick, but they become tedious in a distressingly short period of time, and beneath them lies a narrative structure that has no idea what it's supposed to be doing.

Character development would presumably alleviate much of that, but here too, Ghost Rider drops the ball. Johnson applies the same mélange of comic-book psychology that he used in Daredevil to exponentially weaker effect this time around. Like so many other heroes in the genre, Blaze has lingering wounds over a missing father, a reluctance to accept the mantle of power, a mysterious benefactor (Sam Elliot) whose appearance is as jolting as his baffling final scene, and a would-be girlfriend (Eva Mendes) struggling with the monstrosity of her outsider beau. The tropes come devoid of bounce or energy, as Cage uses his omnipresent Elvis fetish to cover up the character's numerous bare patches. There are some thudding attempts at humor (Mendes has a cute moment involving a magic eight ball), but the film largely plays its mythos excruciatingly straight. It might have worked if its arc were better defined, or if the twinkle in its eye were a little more genuine. But devoid of either of those assets, it's left with turgid solemnity trying to convince us that its disjointed pieces somehow fit into a whole.

The truly exasperating thing about it, though, is how you can sense the pulse of something much better, just waiting for someone to bring it out. There's a lot of kick to notion of a ghostly avenger punishing the wicked as a way of subverting damnation, and few comic-book figures are as overtly cinematic as this one. But it's not enough just to think that he looks bitchin'. It's not enough to throw the rough idea of a hero together without considering what to do with him. Ghost Rider is enough of a blank slate for Johnson to really shape into his own; the fundaments are there for the right craftsman to sculpt. This time, unfortunately, that task goes unfulfilled, leaving only a giant mess to show for its director's obvious passion. That isn't brimstone we're smelling on Ghost Rider. It's something else.

Review published 01.17.2007.

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