You’ve gotta feel sorry for Satan. Back in the nineteenth century it took a whole host of angels, armed with Flaming Rose Pedals of Love, to keep Faust’s soul out of Hell. Before he could even think of redemption, Faust’s sinning ass required the intercession of a Divine Female Figure superstar tag team composed of St. Mary of Egypt, that chick who washed Jesus’ feet in Luke 7:36-50, that Samaritan lady from John 4:3-42, and Faust’s own dead girlfriend.
That’s the kind of firepower you needed to break a deal with the devil…200 years ago. Nowadays, any asshole with a recognizable face can punch, shoot, or simply glower his way out of Hell. Even Keanu Reeves has escaped the devil’s bargain twice now, and no loss stings as hard as a loss to Ted “Theodore” Logan (just ask Satan himself).
Ghost Rider is certainly no Wyld Stallyn. He’s yet another antihero who debuted in the 1970s, helping to usher in the Bronze Age of American comic books. Those dark times fueled darker stories, with many an established hero lowering themselves to deal with “socially relevant” issues like drug addiction or accidental girlfriend death. Meanwhile, new heroes emerged to combat supernatural threats largely banned from comics of the 1950s and 60s thanks to that much-maligned industry censor board, the Comics Code Authority.
While Ghost Rider may not have been the first of the bunch he’s certainly the most garish. After all, chains? Alright. Chains and spikes? I’ll bite. Chains and spikes and a skull for a face? Sure, why not. Chains and spikes and a skull for the face that is also a font of hellfire? Like the wheels of the demonic motorcycle Our Hero customarily rides? That‘s what you call “excess.” That’s what you call “the 70s.”
While modern Hollywood is no stranger to excess it tends to grossly oversimplify stories adapted from other media. Ghost Rider’s the latest in a long line of heroes to suffer from this. I’m surprised people were so surprised, and surprised by the vitriol heaped upon this film’s damn fool head. Almost anything looks good next to Spider-Man 3…but Ghost Rider certainly isn’t what you’d call great.
Johnny Blaze (Matt Long) is one half of a father-and-son daredevil motorcycle team, working the carny circuit. Johnny would very much like to run off with his girlfriend Roxanne (Raquel Alessi), but Roxanne’s dad ain’t having that (so we’re told). Johnny’s plans to run away with her are stymied by the crumpled note he finds in the trash next to dad (who’s passed out in the recliner…already we see the shades of Daredevil). Turns out ol’ Barton Blaze (Brett Cullen) has cancer.
That night, Satan himself (played by His Highness, Peter Fonda) drops in on Casa del Blaze with a contract already drawn up. He’ll cure Papa Blaze in exchange for Johnny’s soul, and one stray drop of blood is all the Devil needs to seal his evil deal. Johnny’s all set to dismiss this as a dream sequence…until Barton Blaze dies in a fiery crash and the devil reappears, warning that one day he’ll call on Johnny for something extra, extra special.
An indeterminate number of years later, Johnny’s nigh-invulnerability and callus disregard for his own life (plus the fact he’s now played by Nick Cage) have made him a stunt man super star in the mold of Evel Kenevil or Super Dave Osborne. Video games bare his name and his stunt jumps fill whole stadiums…but it’s all a big production when you get down to brass tacks, performed for Johnny’s close friends as much as for his fans. Johnny’s hyper aware of the sword over his head and spends his off-time pouring over arcane books of demonology, searching for a way out. “A second chance,” he calls it.
I see Ghost Rider has chosen “Redemption” for tonight’s theme. Would sir care for the red or white wine with that? And would sir care to select a Love Interest to go with tonight’s Hero? The Girl Reporter? But of course! A classic choice. She comes in a wide variety of flavors. Would sir prefer the Gal Friday, the Mary-Jane Watson, or the Bland?
Bland she is, and bland she will remain. Roxanne (now played by Eva Mendes) is bland to the bone, as cliched as the metaphor “It feels like my head’s on fire,” which Johnny later deploys to embarrassing effect. He pulls a death defying stunt inside a stadium, exits, and endangers God only knows how many people in order to block traffic so he can catch up to Roxanne’s news van and ask her out. He sees her as a “sign” of his impending redemption…but, really, this whole thing is a set-up. How could he stand her up when his burgeoning superpowers finally give him something worthwhile to do with his time if he didn’t ask her out in the first place?
Something worthwhile, like, say, tracking down the blandest son of Satan in the history of cinema (American Beauty’s Wes Bentley). Inexplicably called Blackheart, this latest Damien has come to Earth to harvest a cache of damned souls, giving him the power to seize Hell’s throne from Daddy. To help out (and pad the film – that’s “helping” right?) Blackheart’s raised three elemental demons who, in their custom-fit, designer trenchcoats, look like refugees from The Matrix auditions. So when there’s no more room in Club Hell, the Merovingian’s forces will walk the Earth, led by Ricky Fitz of Robin Hood Trail. An Apocalypse like that almost makes me long for Skynet.
To combat this threat to the Natural Order of Things, Mephistopheles reappears just long enough to “curse” Johnny Blaze with the powers of the Ghost Rider. As Johnny explains, “I’m Hell’s bounty hunter,” though for a man who’s supposedly spent his life preparing for this (or, alternatively, for a man possessed by a demon specifically designed to track down escapees from Hell) he certainly takes his own sweet time going about said bounty hunting.
After a night spent riding around causing property damage, Johnny comes to in a graveyard…who’s Caretaker is Sam Elliott…and, because he’s Sam Elliot, the Caretaker knows more about Johnny’s life than anyone has a right to and isn’t shy about hinting at it. Still, someone’s got to lay out the exposition, so it might as well be Wild Bill Hickock. Turns out various poor bastards throughout history have worn Ghost Rider’s flaming skull. The last one, back in the Old West, went rogue at the last minute rather than turn a contract worth hundreds of damned souls over to His Lowness. That’s the mystical MacGuffin Our Hero must seize if he’s to defeat Blackheart…oh, and win back his soul, of course…not sure how that last bit is supposed to work, but apparently neither is Ghost Rider, so I guess I’m just supposed to forget about it in the name of “fun” and “mindless” entertainment.
It all sounds pretty stupid when you type it up like that, and Ghost Rider‘s execution does fuck all to combat this assessment. Writer/director Mark Steven Johnson’s showing us that special effects really have reached a place where they can portray Ghost Rider in all his creepy, flaming glory. He’s showing us he can turn in a competent superhero film if the studios will leave him alone long enough and pick the kind of MPAA rating they want before he starts filming. He’s right on that first count…and, in case you haven’t guessed by the arch-cynic tone I’ve taken so far, dead wrong on the second.
I’m not hatin’ on the poor guy. I’m just saying, Mark…some of your dialogue here could use some real fucking work. When you’re hero’s idea of bravado is to growl at the villain, “You’re goin’ down,” and your villain’s idea of a witty rejoinder is, “I don’t think so,” you’ve got a serious problem. Please, Mark, show me the alternate universe where that’s considered “fresh” and “scintillating” repartee. I’d like to set up shop there. That way, my superpowered, trench coat-wearing son of Satan character would surely cause a literary sensation, making me a mint off franchise rights.
I promise to come back and invest in Ghost Rider‘s inevitable sequel. (Spoiler alert: it didn’t help.) That way, Mark won’t have to settle for any of the lackluster action scenes that keep this from being the standout superhero production of 2007 it so badly wants to be. God only knows why Sony was so cheap with this picture. Actually, I think I know the answer: all that Spider-Man 3 advertising must’ve depleted the official money pile…meaning Ghost Rider is yet another thing Spider-Man 3 ruined. Thanks a lot, Sony, you Sam Raimi-alienating fucks.
I rather liked Nick Cage’s turn as the adult Johnny Blaze, even though I hate him for making me use the word “quirky.” There’s no other word to describe him, and Cage is a modern master of making quirks work to suggest a character’s three-dimensionality…even if “suggest” is all he can do, as here. Johnny’s teetotalism and obsession with the Carpenters are interesting character traits…they’re just the only ones he’s given, and they do nothing to answer the overriding question of why he’d want to become a superhero by the end of the film. The best answer available – “Because that’s just what superhero’s do!” – is also the dumbest. As are most of Cage’s unforgivable one-liners, which he deploys like verbal fusillades once he gets his powers. You know the one thing I actually like about antiheroes? On occasion, they shut the fuck up during their fight scenes.
But Cage can’t carry this whole thing on his shoulders, eyebrows and posturing. Even the Incredible Hulk would have some difficulty with that. There are plenty of cool elements in this story but Ghost Rider can’t bring them together with anything other than coincidence and contrivance. That great sage, Captain James T. Kirk, once asked, “What does God need with a starship?” so in that same spirit I’ll ask all involved, “What does Satan need with a bounty hunter?” With all of Hell behind him, there should be plenty of minor demons looking for work. And if they’re not occupied, believe me, they’ll be hatching their own plots to take over. Or did you not read Mike Carey’s Lucifer comic from the early 2000s?
Ghost Rider, the book, doesn’t have this problem. There, Johnny Blaze (with a lot of help from Roxanne) actually escaped the devil’s bargain through (what else?) the Power of Love. The Lord of the Flies bonded Johnny to the Spirit of Vengeance (eventually retconned into a demon in its own right) as an act of retribution, because Satan hates sentimental bullshit about “the Power of Love” almost as much as I do. Ever since, Johnny’s fought and feuded with his inner demon as often (if not more often) as with the demons of others.
It’s a Faust story with a smattering of old-fashioned lycanthropy when you get past the modern setting, the bike, and the flames. But if that’s true, Ghost Rider is to other Faustian myths as Teen Wolf is to The Werewolf of Paris. Aside from the deaths of some of his supporting cast (about whom we don’t learn enough to care anyway), Johnny gets off easy, his dealings with the devil about as consequence-free as a deal with the devil can be. Hard to feel bad for a guy who cons superpowers out of Satan and gets away with it…somehow. Maybe I’m just mad because of the hot Girl Reporter he receives as a special bonus gift…but I’d like to know just how defeating Blackheart frees Johnny from Satan’s influence? Is the Devil just that weak?
Speaking of which…why doesn’t the Dark Prince just bitch slap his uppity child back to Cocytus and spare himself (and Johnny, and us) all the leg work? Why does he (or Blackheart) need to have the physical contract in hand before he can collect those thousand damned souls? If it’s that powerful, why’d the Morning Star ever let it slip his grasp in the first fucking place? And is Sam Elliot ever going to play anything other than a Wise Old Cowboy? I love The Big Lebowski too…but I loved Elliot’s turn as General Thunderbolt Ross even more. I keep waiting for him to sneer something at Johnny, like, “If you ever…come near my daughter again…I’ll put you away for the rest of your natural life.” Plenty of fathers have said that to Nicholas Cage over the years, I’ll bet.
I take it back. Strike simile, replace with a new one: Ghost Rider is to Faust as American Werewolf in London is to The Werewolf of Paris. There’s even a scene where the monstrously transformed protagonist kinda-sorta picks his Lady Love Interest out of a crowd…right before the police fill him full of lead. Both films have great effects, decent direction and a good enough cast, but Ghost Rider’s hampered by some of the worst dialogue this side of the Fantastic Four franchise.
It’s a mediocre story from a mediocre year made up (for the most part) of grand disappointments. It’s that bullshit, cotton candy kind of “fun” Hollywood thinks is good enough for we slobbering proles because they don’t want to try harder. It’s definitely not as good as Mark Steven Johnson’s previous foray into the Marvel Universe, the director’s cut of Daredevil. The whole “redemption” angle is far too similar for comfort, and both films hand redemption out like it’s Black Friday and EVERY SECOND CHANCE IS PRICED TO MOVE! At least Daredevil avoided opening up any mystical cans of worms in its own face.
A second chance for what, exactly? To be a hero, of course. I applaud Ghost Rider‘s enthusiasm…but as I’ve said before, “It’s the execution that counts.” It’s almost as if Johnson is overcompensating for Daredevil, which began as an R-rated, revisionist superhero picture and got mutilated by directives from a studio looking to replicate Spider-Man‘s success by replicating Spider-Man. This time, it seems Johnson didn’t even try to push the envelope, and purposely made a dumb, PG-13, special effects orgy because he thought that would catch him the least amount of shit.
If that’s the case, Mr. Johnson, I understand. Daredevil caused an epic shit fit that only grew as Affleck Bashing became a new national past time (make two films for Michael Bay and see what happens). If Sony fucked with you and, once again, fucked all the good things out of your film – I still appreciate what you’re trying to do. This wants to be a mindless bit of escapism, made by fans who cared enough to film the comics of their childhood, and I appreciate that most of all. But I also recognize that impulse was the source of Ghost Rider‘s failing. The characters are stock, the plot is yet another origin story that feels like it ends just before the interesting parts start and the glib treatment of what should by all rights be weighty matters (like, oh, say, deals with the fucking devil) becomes more interesting than anything else.
Much like certain Spider-Man comics I could mention…but won’t, since I’m pretending they don’t exist. I plan to start pretending the same thing about this film very soon.