Ghost Rider

Ghost Rider


Reviewed by: Rory Ford

Back in the early Eighties, Marvel Comics supremo Stan Lee used to tell a story about meeting Dino De Laurentis, who was interested in acquiring the rights to two Marvel characters. The first one? An obscure Spider-Man villain, Man-Wolf, who had been spun off into a few paltry issues of his own (unsuccessful) series.

Inwardly Lee groaned. Marvel's main competitors DC Comics already had the first two Superman movies out there. Lee didn't want Marvel's first big screen outing to be an unfortunate astronaut who turned into a wolf when the moon was full.

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"Listen Dino," he said, "let me try to save you some money. You don't have to buy the rights to Man-Wolf, you can just make a movie about a werewolf."

Then Lee asked what the other character Dino was interested in. "Itsa' Ghost Rider!"

That was Lee's punchline - and it never failed to get a laugh.

Even among comics fans Ghost Rider has always been one of Marvel's C-listers. A black leather biker with a flaming skull for a head - surely the only comic book character in history to have been "inspired" by a Hell's Angel tattoo. Even I gave up reading the comics when I was eight - the damn thing didn't make sense. Johnny Blaze sells his soul to the Devil, yet ends up fighting crime. How does that work?

Also, every few issues, the Devil would try to cash in on Johnny's soul (again) and send a bunch of demons - invariably on motorcycles - to collect. Unsuccessfully, of course. Spider-Man, this ain't.

Still, for all Ghost Rider's silliness, the character seems to have collected a bunch of high profile fans in Hollywood. Aside from Dino, Jon Voight, who would have been perfect casting for ol' Bonehead 30 years ago, wanted a crack at it. Now Nicolas Cage, who has been sniffing round superheroes for over a decade, finally gets to don a costume.

Cage was to be Superman in Tim Burton's aborted re-imagining. Then he circled Marvel's Iron Man (now to be played by Robert Downey Jr) until this came along. And do you know what? It's actually quite good.

In fact, since Cage's last two movies were Oliver Stone's meretricious World Trade Center and Neil la Bute's appalling Wicker Man remake, this dumb-but-fun comic-book-biker-horror genre bender may set him back on the path to career rehab.

Cage plays Johnny Blaze who, as a young man (Matt Long), very reluctantly sells his soul to the Devil (Peter Fonda) to save his dad from lung cancer. Anyhoo, as you might expect from Satanic bargains, things go tits up very quickly and Johnny even misses out on running away with his sweetheart Roxanne (Raquel Alessi). Damn!

Fast forward 20 years - maybe 30, given that Cage is, and looks, 43 - and Johnny is a successful stunt rider given to laughing in the face of death and swigging jelly beans from a Martini glass - just to give Cage something quirky to do. No matter how suicidal the stunt, Johnny escapes unscathed. The Devil's been keeping him safe, you see.

Apparently, 100 years ago, Old Nick had another Ghost Rider, whom he sent to collect a contract of souls from a Texan desert town, but the contract was so powerful that the Rider rode off with it and now the Devil's son Blackheart (Wes Bentley) has come to earth to find it, but Bad Daddy wants it for himself, as there's some power struggle going on within the family business and... oh, hell, I dunno. Honestly, the full import of all this was lost on me, but since writer/director Mark Steven Johnson seems similarly confused about the whole deal, let's just call it even.

What matters is that Cage soon has a flaming skull for a head - an improvement, frankly - and a blazing hot chopper that looks like it's been constructed out of demon's bones, that can ride up the side of skyscrapers. What matters even more is that it looks really impressive. We've all been desensitised to the wonders of CGI, so if you are going to go that route, at least show us something we haven't seen before. This Ghost Rider does - and does rather well. There's more visual excitement here in any given shot of the flaming Bonehead than all of Revenge Of The Sith.

Even so, Ghost Rider has more than its fair share of flaws, too. Cage is a little too old for a start. His dyed black hair and new teeth give him the look of a particularly goofy cartoon horse. As if he is aware of this he goes rather Vampire's Kiss on all our asses, giving one of his more, uh, eccentric performances in quite some time. It's fun to watch, but he never troubles the realms of realism. Then again, why should he?

Fonda (a nice piece of casting) is fine, but burdened with a strawberry blonde bouffant that wouldn't look out of place on your grandma. This must be the first film in her career in which Eva Mendes, as the fully grown Roxanne, has the most natural looking hairdo of the entire cast. She makes the most of very little here, a sure sign of a star in the making.

Bentley is negligible, which is almost entirely due to a part that could have been scribbled on the back of an envelope - character, motivation, dialogue an' all. Best of a mixed bunch is the wonderful Sam Elliot, as The Caretaker, a wise old cowpoke who hangs out in graveyards and mentors Johnny. It's almost the same part Elliot played in The Big Lebowski, but for many of us that's a plus, not a criticism.

Ghost Rider is occasionally choppy in tone and pace. The tone, you suspect, is down to Cage's script dabblings and Johnson's relative inexperience. It's still smoother than the cinematic release of his underrated Daredevil, but not up to the quality of his considerably superior DVD Director's Cut.

The pacing problems, I'm certain, stem from Sony's insistence on a 12A /PG-13 rating. At one point Johnny is shoved in a jail cell, packed full of miscreants, only to flame out into ol' bonehead. One moment Cage is emoting like billyo, while punks circle him, the next he's got a skull for a head and bodies litter the floor. I'd put good money on a 15-certificate Director's Cut coming to DVD within the year, and I'm quite looking forward to seeing it. Maybe it'll clear up all the plot holes.

While the 12A may have adversely affected the film, you can see why Sony insisted on it. Since Ghost Rider was denied a press screening outside London, I had the pleasure of seeing it with a Friday night crowd when it opened. It was, without doubt, the most mixed audience I have ever been a part of - Goths with purple nail varnish, hairy bikers, hardcore horror fans, comic book geeks and 10 and 11-year-old children, with their indulgent parents. It's safe to say we all quite enjoyed it. If you can appeal to an audience this broad, it's no bloody wonder Ghost Rider topped the US box-office for two weeks running.

Reviewed on: 05 Mar 2007
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Biker sells soul to the devil in Marvel Comic book adaptation.
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Director: Mark Steven Johnson

Writer: Mark Steven Johnson

Starring: Nicolas Cage, Eva Mendes Peter Fonda, Sam Elliot, Wes Bentley, Donal Logue, Matt Long, Raquel Alessi

Year: 2007

Runtime: 114 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: US


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