Growing up around our house meant sharing the stereo, and as a child, sharing usually meant listening to what my parents were listening to. Country-western music was a favorite, and even though I didn’t like it, Johnny Cash was a personal favorite. There was something about his rendition of “Ghost Riders in the Sky” that tapped into my imagination.
Ghost Rider, based on the popular cult comic from the 1970s, attempts to tap into the same nostalgic corner of my imagination, and thanks to state-of-the-art digital effects and a great, goofy performance by Nicolas Cage, the film usually succeeds. Ghost Rider doesn’t require much from its viewers other than to appreciate the effort, and when the film is on fire, it blazes across the screen like a comet. When the flame goes out, Ghost Rider becomes a predictable series of stunts, emotional wrangling and awkward posturing.
Writer-director Mark Steven Johnson, who brought Elektra and Daredevil to the big screen, drops all pretense and just goes for it. He knows better than anyone that the sight of a flaming skeleton riding a motorcycle is absurd, so he claims the peak and makes it his own. It’s not like the folks connected with this film thought they were making art. It’s a circus sideshow, with the freaks front and center.
Center ring is young Johnny Blaze, whose father, Barton, a motorcycle stunt rider, is dying of cancer. When Mephistopheles (Peter Fonda) offers Johnny a one-for-one, he readily accepts. In exchange for not letting his father die of cancer, Johnny will inherit the mantle of Ghost Rider. Johnny quickly learns his lesson when Barton dies the next day in a fiery accident. Hey, at least he didn’t die from cancer. Cursed, Johnny waits for Mephistopheles to collect on the debt.
Now an adult, Johnny (Cage) has become an amazing stunt rider, accomplishing death-defying leaps without a scratch. When Mephis-topheles learns that his son Black-heart (Wes Bentley) plans to take over the family business, he transforms Johnny into the Ghost Rider to stop Blackheart and his minions.
Ghost Rider worked as a comic book because the characters and situations were as thin as the page they were printed on. Johnson fleshes out the back story and pumps up the love interest, adding layers of complication to the story’s superficiality. Once the premise is established — good guy becomes human torch whenever evil is near — the film has nowhere to go but from one showdown to the next.
Technology makes it possible for the filmmakers to transform Ghost Rider into more of a marvel and less of an embarrassment. Watching Johnny go through the slow burn before going up in flames is genuinely exciting. The technical and visual effects teams have done a superior job of making Ghost Rider a live-action cartoon. They find great invention in the premise, using their digital domain to take us and the lead character on a fantastic ride.
There are actually two back stories in Ghost Rider one taking place in the Old West, the second while Johnny is a young man hoping to elope with girlfriend Roxanne. Both windows are necessary to bring the legend up to date. The Old West segment introduces us to the original Ghost Rider, who plays an important role in Johnny’s growth; the other to Roxanne, who grows up to become a reporter hot on the trail of the mysterious Ghost Rider.
Once the back stories are dispensed with, Ghost Rider settles down until all hell breaks loose. That’s when Blackheart arrives with accomplices who can take on the elements of earth, air and water. The more souls he collects, the more powerful Blackheart becomes, with each soul bringing us closer to the end.
The good versus evil back-and-forth works for the most part, with Ghost Rider taking on and eventually dispensing with the assortment of bad guys. There’s too much invested in this franchise to kill off the hero, so suspense is limited to close calls and near misses.
Unless I’m rubbing ice cubes across my nipples, I don’t like to use the word cool, but Ghost Rider is extremely cool. The filmmakers know what the audience expects and deliver the goods. Thank goodness none of this is taken seriously. Cage is the perfect choice to play the reluctant hero, whose sense of humor grows with his powers. Watching Cage explore his situation is hilarious, like watching Clark Kent trying to keep his Superman cape tucked into his pants.
Developing a relationship is hard enough, but when you can burst into flames at the flick of a Bic, that’s entertainment. Eva Mendes makes a lovely Lois Lane to Cage’s Kent. It’s easy to see how Johnny could spend a lifetime pining over her. Mendes has the thankless role of the feisty heroine caught in a deadly tug-of-war between good and evil, yet never allows us to see her as a victim.
Peter Fonda has a devil of a time as Mephistopheles, and Wes Bentley seems to be channeling an adult Damien from The Omen, while Sam Elliott is noble as a cemetery worker good at burying the past.
The real stars of the film are Cage and his alter egos, capable of leaping over whirling helicopter blades or up the side of an office building. Visual effects turn cheese into fine brie, momentarily taking us out of the mundane and into a world where we easily believe a flaming skeleton on a motorcycle can roam the range.