Poor, poor Nicolas Cage. The guy seems to have but two speeds: serious thespian (Leaving Las Vegas, Adaptation, The Weather Man, World Trade Center) and embarrassing action star (Con Air, Gone In Sixty Seconds, National Treasure). Watching him play motorcycle daredevil Johnny Blaze (aka Ghost Rider), it's hard to believe Cage once won a Best Actor Oscar. Maybe, like his comic book character here, he made a Faustian deal with the devil and Ghost Rider was the price. (Ghost did, after all, see the biggest opening weekend in Cage's career.)
Marvel Comics has been trotting out its B-list superheroes for the big screen and, with the exception of Blade, the transition has been rather bumpy. Daredevil, The Punisher and Elektra were both critical and box office disappointments. Ghost Rider, with its hackneyed script, substandard acting and lackluster action sequences, represents a new low for the genre.
It's tricky stuff adapting comic books to the screen. In many ways, superheroes are the new mythology, larger-than-life champions who reflect our virtues and failings on a grand scale. When handled correctly like X-Men 2, Hellboy and both Spiderman films, they find the right mix of spectacle, heart and tongue-in-cheek melodrama.
Writer-director Mark Steven Johnson made his first stab at the genre with Ben Affleck's Daredevil. Maligned by many critics, it really wasn't that bad a film. Somber and disjointed, you got the feeling that something meatier had been hacked away. Watching the director's cut on DVD confirms that Johnson's vision, while far from perfect, had been compromised by studio tampering. It's hard to imagine a special edition of Ghost Rider revealing anything other than the crap it is.
Cage plays an Evel Knievel-style stunt rider who once sold his soul to Mephistopheles (a wildly miscast Peter Fonda) to cure his father of cancer. Bound to do the devil's bidding as the Ghost Rider a flaming skeleton on a pimped-out motorcycle he hunts down and destroys renegade demons from hell. When Mephistopheles' son, Blackheart (Wes Bentley) decides to take the throne from Dad, Blaze teams up with the Caretaker, a grizzled cowboy (does Sam Elliot play anything else?), to stop him. Eva Mendes plays the inconsequential love interest, Roxanne.
A weird mix of clunky video-game action, stupid humor and jumbled origin myth, Johnson's script leaves no cliché unturned. He never settles on a consistent tone, bouncing between horror and camp, failing miserably at both. The movie is silly and stupid, and Cage's wacky character additions (a fondness for jelly beans and Karen Carpenter) don't help the situation.
Rumor has it the film was made because of Cage's affection for the character. You'd never know it from his feeble performance. Except for a few flashes of hammy lunacy, Cage's Blaze turns out to be an unbelievable bore. Worse, Cage has zero chemistry with sweetheart Mendes, no matter how much cleavage she flaunts.
Surprisingly, Ghost Rider's foe is even less convincing. Bentley, so good in American Beauty, plays Blackheart as a pouty goth teen. He's the least menacing villain in ages, and the flashes of CG horror that occasionally mars his pretty-boy face make you want to give him a wedgie.
But the one place Ghost Rider doesn't embarrass is in its CG effects. The transformations are pretty cool and the flaming effects never fail to impress. Too bad the action sequences never take off. Audiences come to superhero films to experience epic mano a mano combat, and Johnson teases us with plenty of fiery foreplay, but he never delivers the action booty. Even the most die-hard comic fan will walk away feeling, uh, screwed.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.