For a movie that places so much emphasis on the soul, “Ghost Rider” is conspicuously devoid of one.
“Ghost Rider” is another ham-fisted Marvel comic adaptation from Mark Steven Johnson, the writer/director who made “Daredevil” such a tedious bore four years ago. Johnson has the uncanny ability to make the extraordinary seem ordinary, as evidenced again by this new misfire.
One would probably expect a movie about a skeleton with a flaming head who rides a tricked-out Satanic motorcycle to be pretty bad, but how in Hell did Johnson succeed in making it boring as well?
1. In order to make a fantasy/comic adaptation successful, you have to believe in your characters, otherwise no one will care enough to accept a ridiculous premise. Stunt cyclist Johnny Blaze has no personality whatsoever, despite the fact that Nicolas Cage tries desperately to bring some dry humor to the grim proceedings. As a young man, he is a blank slate with a bad haircut. When Mephistopheles (a sleepwalking Peter Fonda) offers him a deal for his soul, he doesn’t so much as agree as just stare straight ahead and not respond. Even in moments of great peril, he looks apathetic. He is the most indifferent daredevil ever—next to Ben Affleck’s Daredevil.
2. The love story has to work; otherwise it’s a distraction. When they are teenagers, actors who look the same age play Johnny and Roxanne. Yet somehow when they grow up, there is suddenly at least a fifteen-year difference between Johnny (Cage) and Roxanne (Eva Mendes) that no amount of soft focus can cover up. Once they get together again, the circumstances are so forced that the characters cannot be believable, no matter how hard the actors try. Their cat-and-mouse courtship is on and off again when the plot requires it to be, but is never believable once.
3. Speaking of arbitrary plot developments, one staple of the fantasy film is to clearly state the rules and then follow them. The Devil cheats Johnny right away on the deal for his soul, so who’s to say he won’t do it again? When he tells the Ghost Rider to hunt a rogue demon named Blackheart in exchange for his soul back again, why would Johnny bother? Furthermore, once he meets a rustic stranger (Sam Elliott) who knows suspiciously much of his unique plight, he asks no questions. With the film’s nonsense logic, I suppose he wouldn’t ask any questions when that person arbitrarily turns back (?!) after a big build-up to nothing. After the huge letdown of a final battle, there are more rules being broken again, just for the sake of a sequel that will hopefully never come.
4. The villains and fight scenes in “Ghost Rider” are all tease and no payoff. Looking for another of Mephistopheles’ fabled contracts, Blackheart (a wholly unconvincing Wes Bentley) and his motley gang of Hellish castouts posses the ability to make a person turn black from the inside out. Cool. Unfortunately, they also morph into blurry CGI faces from “The Nightmare Before Christmas” when they need to be scarier, accompanied by whooshing noises. When Ghost Rider finally does battle with each of these baddies, every single fight is a letdown where his CGI flame effects just randomly overpower their CGI water, sand, or other element effect. How exactly does fire overtake water in a bigger body of water? Who knows? We don’t know the rules because they are never laid out. Kudos to the sound effects crew for adding some needed extra impact, but it’s just not enough.
Ghost Rider’s most fascinating power happens when he grabs a hold of a criminal. “Your soul is tainted with the blood of the innocent. Look into my eyes,” he bellows, as the bad guy feels his victims’ horror through their perspective. This is the most interesting element of the myth and it takes up approximately seven total minutes of screen time. Johnson should take a page from Bryan Singer (“Superman Returns”) and Sam Raimi’s (“Spider-Man”) book and try going back to what makes his character interesting in the first place.
The key to “Ghost Rider” making any kind of sense at all lies in what Johnny’s soul is truly made of and what he will do to get it back. Since we never know the answers to either of those questions, the movie becomes an exercise in waiting for Cage to turn evil so we can watch a flaming skull-guy in a leather coat raise Hell in the city.
Which looks pretty cool, by the way.