Based on the Marvel comic series, "Ghost Rider" was originally planned to be released last spring before getting pushed back almost ten months into the wintry doldrums of February. Columbia Pictures' claim for this drastic change was that more time was needed to perfect the visual effects required in bringing the title characteran aflame, motorcycle-riding skeletonto life. That is all well and good in theory, but the last-minute advance screenings for critics and the ultimate finished product point to a different reason: the movie sucks. No matter how much fine-tuning had to be done in regards to the CGI, the effects still comes off as nothing more than computer creations; at no point does it realistically look like an actual living, breathing skeletal superhero. That, however, is the least of the film's problems. Laughably written and flatly directed by Mark Steven Johnson (2003's "Daredevil
"), "Ghost Rider" firmly falls into the lower rung of comic book adaptations, joining the unsavory likes of 1997's "Batman and Robin," 2004's "Catwoman
," and 2005's "Elektra
" and "The Fantastic Four
As one-half of a father-son stunt motorcyclist act, 17-year-old Johnny Blaze (Matt Long) made a signed agreement with the devil himself, Mephistopheles (Peter Fonda), selling his soul in exchange for curing his chain-smoking dad's (Brett Cullen) cancer. Ever a maniacal trickster, Mephistopheles fills his end of the bargain, only to kill him the very same day in a stunt gone wrong. Roughly twenty years later, a grown-up Johnny (Nicolas Cage) is a superstar stunt performer who, without a soul, has been unable to allow himself to get close to anyone. At the same time that his estranged teenage love, news reporter Roxanne Simpson (Eva Mendes), walks back into his life, Johnny's dark destiny rears itself, turning him in the moonlight into a fiery, chain-whipping bounty hunter. As Johnny struggles with his newfound burden and powers, he is pitted against Mephistophele's power-hungry son Blackheart (Wes Bentley), who is out to obtain a sacred scroll that will turn him into a greater evil than the world has ever known.
"Ghost Rider" is jokier than the average superhero movie, but it is only when it turns serious that the hilarity ensues. So bad it's funny, but not bad or funny enough to be anything but painful, the film tries unsuccessfully to make serious any number of dialogue howlers. My favorites: "He may have taken your soul, but he can't take your spirit," and "You're still just a carnie." In another scene, someone literally calls the skeleton-turning Johnny a "bonehead," and means it. At any point in the greenlighting and filming of "Ghost Rider," did anyone involved actually read the script that was being produced? If they had, they would have instantly realized what a disaster it is. The characters are empty-headed caricatures, from the brooding hero to the spunky, skeptical dame to the lame, derivative clan of leather-clad villains. The story is borderline-incomprehensible, with the viewer forced to spend more time than necessary trying to figure out the hows and whys and motives of everyone.
Failing both as a classic good vs. evil tale and a love story, certainly the $120-million "Ghost Rider" delivers the action goods, right? Wrong. There are roughly two action set-pieces that come to mind, one which has been seen almost in full in the trailerthe whole driving-up-the-side-of-the-skyscraper bitand the other a direct rip-off of the spirit-filled finale from "Raiders of the Lost Ark." Otherwise, there are a lot of shots of the Ghost Rider riding around the streets by motorcycle and through the desert on horseback, leaving a streak of flames in his wake. Aesthetically, these scenes are okay, but without a well-developed story, a smart script, and involving characters, there is nothing to hook the visuals onto.
In his second embarrassing role in a row (after the debacle that was 2006's remake of "The Wicker Man
"), a toned Nicolas Cage looks better than he has in years. His acting isn't quite so fresh, however, though no one could do much with this tripe. Every time Cage vanishes into his computerized alter ego, so does the character of Johnny Blaze. As underdeveloped love interest Roxanne, Eva Mendes (2005's "Hitch
") plays her reporter part with too much flightiness to be plausible. It should also be noted that, with a ten-year difference between them, Mendes and Cage are an unlikely match as people who are supposed to be the same age. Wes Bentley (2002's "The Four Feathers
") is an over-the-top laughing stock as demonic bad guy Blackheart, while Peter Fonda (1999's "The Limey"), as devil Mephistopheles, couldn't scare a kitten. As for the usually great Sam Elliott (2006's "Thank You for Smoking
"), he is wasted portraying the silly character of a wise caretaker with a thinly-veiled secret.
Gothic inspiration is apparent through some of "Ghost Rider," with a dose of "Faust" and its atmospheric imagery thrown into the mix. The occasional good-looking shot does not a good movie make, though, as whatever potential the film might have held is lost upon a rotten screenplay whittled strictly out of spare parts from better movies and dialogue that couldn't possibly get any more clichéd. Adding to the condescension are multiple flashbacks to scenes that transpired only minutes before, as if audiences are thought to only have the memory span of gnats. When "Ghost Rider" ended, infectious widespread laughter and comments of ridicule broke out in the theater. That is probably not the reaction director Mark Steven Johnson was aiming for, but it was well-warranted.