As if “Daredevil” and “Elektra” never happened, writer/director Mark Steven Johnson has been allowed on the set of yet another superhero film. This time, he works his fractured magic on Marvel Comics’ hell-spawned biker series, “Ghost Rider.”
One could argue that Johnson had strikes against him with “Daredevil” because of the absurd story. Admittedly, a blind man with a fancy walking stick for a weapon doesn’t exactly conjure up images of superhero grandeur. That’s why there are no excuses this time around with “Ghost Rider.” With the right budget (tens of millions) and the right cast (Nicolas Cage, Sam Elliott), audiences should not be bored by a motorcyclist with a flaming skull who kills demons while riding up the sides of buildings.
Unlike the usual exposure to gamma rays or nuclear waste, Ghost Rider’s origins are a bit more supernatural. The young motorcycle whiz Johnny Blaze (Matt Long) makes a deal with the devil to save his ailing father. The aging Peter Fonda’s portrayal of the devil is perhaps the least threatening depiction since Ned Flanders played Satan incarnate in a Halloween episode of “The Simpsons.” As deals with the devil often go, Johnny gets screwed. His father’s cancer is cured, but he dies in a motorcycle accident five minutes later.
Older Johnny Blaze (played by Cage) becomes the Ghost Rider, an all-powerful force for justice and vengeance. He’s charged with stopping the evil Blackheart, son of the devil. Blackheart rides around with a gang of minions who have Captain Planet–like powers of water, wind and earth. It sounds cool, but apparently the costume designer’s idea of menacing — an assortment of cheesy leather jackets — is based on Christian rock album covers.
Cage looks like he’s trying hard to make Blaze fun, and he conjures a bit of Elvis quirk to make the character interesting. Cage, a huge fan of comics in real life, named his son Kal-El and has a tattoo of Ghost Rider on his body. Cage’s Blaze listens to Carpenters’ music to relax and snacks on more jelly beans than Ronald Reagan. But Cage’s efforts to spice up the role are ultimately futile, since his face is covered by a CGI flaming skull for the latter half of the film.
Elliott (aka The Stranger from “The Big Lebowski”) serves as the film’s narrator and Blaze’s mentor. With his deep, charcoal-tinged voice, he sounds like he should be the voice-over for every Western, though he too is largely ignored for most of the film.
The efforts in the film seem to have largely been spent on the special effects, which are more than adequate, but not dazzling. There are a few great shots of Ghost Rider on his bike, rocketing up the side of a skyscraper or leaving a trail of flames in his wake. Sure it looks real, but it is difficult to tell the difference between a real flaming skull riding a motorcycle and a fake one, anyway.
Replicating the 1970s–era popularity of stunt-bike heroes like Evil Knievel, “Ghost Rider” the film had a great opportunity to create something smart and retro, paying homage to the original ’70s comic and the times that created it. Johnson does none of that. The film does not capture the cheesy patriotic glamour of jumping some gorge on a motorbike in a red, white and blue jumpsuit, nor does it feel like a real representation of the comic’s epic storylines.
“Ghost Rider” is content to straddle the middle line, resulting in sub-par placement on the ever expanding list of superhero adaptations. It is not nearly on the level of “Spiderman,” but at least it is not as disastrous as “Catwoman.”
“Ghost Rider” was written and directed by Mark Steven Johnson.
“Ghost Rider” received two out of four stars.