Of all the comic book characters making the move to big movies, Ghost Rider is the one who definitely needed to have his origin story told. Whereas Spider-Man, Batman, the Hulk and the Fantastic Four are actually well-known enough to have just hit the screen do-gooding, Marvel's iconic hellblazer has always been a bit of an outsider, a niche hero even in printed form. Working for the Devil and wearing a skull fringed with fire, motorcycle stuntman Johnny Blaze was a poster-boy for the country and western brigade, a shamelessly cowboy-inspired redneck figurehead of raging retribution. The dark, satanic “lore”-man of legend is here, in Mark Steven Johnson's cheerful, and long-gestated, adaptation, given quite a bit of pre-cranial conflagration screentime - especially in this extended version - and, as far as I am concerned, this is no bad thing. The man who brought Daredevil to cinematic life, and very successfully in my opinion despite having Ben Affleck in it, gets the titular character of the Rider and the development of Johnny Blaze just about right, ticking off the genre staples dutifully as he goes along. Backstory framed by a personal tragedy that still haunts him. Check. Shocking metamorphosis into something utterly alien and beyond his control. Check. Inner turmoil as he battles his own demons to achieve understanding of, and supremacy over his newfound powers. Check. The thing is, and this is quite painful when you think about how this movie could have turned out, is that Johnson just doesn't seem to know how far he can run with the tale, or what he can get away with. One of Marvel's darker and more adult characters should garner himself a film adaptation that heads out in that same bold and fearless direction. The Rider was always a horror show - from what I remember of the comics - and even if Johnson crams in a few other demons and a plotline that threatens to create Hell on Earth (nothing too original there, either), his movie snuffs out tension and menace at every turn, reducing what probably sounded epically chilling on the script-page, to little more than a couple of feeble dust-ups with dull-as-dishwater demons with under-developed diabolical abilities.
“The thing about legends is ... sometimes they're true.”
Things did show a glimmer of hope when this extended cut was promised. I mean Johnson's beefed-up Daredevil Director's Cut was excellent, throwing in a lot more brutality along with an entirely new subplot! But there's nothing all that special added here, folks. Sorry.
Hang on a minute ... before you go thinking that I am going to follow the party line here and rip Ghost Rider to shreds, think again. I actually enjoyed the film enough to go see it a couple of times at the flicks and now, watching it on Blu-ray, I still think that it is a load of fun. So, let's just get to the good stuff, eh, before we go all critical again? Burgeoning stunt-celebrity Johnny Blaze discovers that his already famous father is suffering from an incurable cancer, which seems to put paid to his ideas of skipping town with the love of life, Roxanne. Until, that is, the party animal from the Pit turns up and makes him that dastardly deal - he cures daddy and Johnny will, one day, come work for him. Flash forward a good few years and the older Johnny (Nic Cage) is now at the top of his game, flinging his bike and his body across huge chasms filled with trucks or rotor-twirling helicopters to the adulation of the masses. His fearlessness is, of course, borne out from the fact that he knows he cannot die with the Devil looking out for him. But this precarious Eden is about to shatter when Satan's troublesome son, Blackheart (Wes Bentley), comes to town with the notion of usurping his old man and that demonic debt is rapidly recalled.
“One day, when I need you ... I'll come. Until then, I'll be watching you. Forget about friends. Forget about family. Forget about love. You're mine, Johnny Blaze.”
The Pact with Mephistopheles (Peter Fonda looking surprisingly like Lance Henrikson) sets the tone for what will follow. It could be argued that this tone is “all style and no substance” but, for me, the light-hearted approach that Johnson has deliberately opted for is quite delicious. The selling of Johnny's soul and subsequent contract to become the Ghost Rider is all dealt out in broad cartoonic brushstrokes. It's simple and to the point, and darkly romantic in true frontier-folktale yore. Why this works so well is that it allows the story to then adhere to the dark western motifs that typified the lyrics of such spur-jangling classics as The Devil Went Down To Georgia and, most notably, Ghost Riders In The Sky. Johnson chooses to take the iconography of such campfire-yarns and not delve too deeply into the logicality of it all, believing, perhaps mistakenly, that to do so would derail his attempt to flesh out his own personal favourite avenger. With one eye, the financial one, on the potential audience, he then opts to go down a manic and all-too-often comedic trail, in the assumption that to portray Johnny's subsequent descent onto Hell's payroll more seriously would be too psychologically damaging to Marvel's profit margin.
Thus, he creates a film that is wildly off-kilter and occasionally quite anarchic ... and certainly not one that fans and critics expected. Or wanted, apparently. Eva Mendes' Roxanne supplies the sultriness, yet rolls the sass on its ass by assuming a Friends-style persona that takes the hero's romance in a completely abstract direction. And only the casting of eternal cowboy Sam Elliott as a graveyard bonedigger with a few secretes up his sleeve keeps the story rooted in Old West mystique.
But when he gets it right, Johnson really turns the heat up. Roaring to demonic life, Cage performs some sinister uber-gurning during the intense transformation sequence, and rises above the daftness of it all by recalling the heady histrionics he exhibited in some of his earlier filmic glories, especially Face/Off, with wild, eye-popping aplomb. Johnson keeps the camera twirling around Blaze as each new pass reveals more pain, more flame and more ecstasy until, coiffured in glowing brimstone, the notorious skull leers out in hellish fury. Yep, the living, breathing Ghost Rider sure looks the part, particularly when Johnny's trusty bike morphs into a burning chrome and bone-encrusted hog from Hades, and he whips out a lash of hot iron chain. With a hard-man strut and leathers fused to his body, the Rider is, indeed, a sight for sore eyes. The old action chestnut of a jailbreak is righteously served up and the Rider, new avenger on the big-screen block that he is, has to do the whole police-runaround thing a la Batman Begins' Gotham hot-pursuit mix. He makes that great up-the-wall jaunt that looked so cool in the trailer - kudos goes to the sight of his livid ascent as viewed from Roxanne's window, too - but the joyous duel with a copper-chopper has already been topped by the image of him literally skimming across the surface of the river, churning the water into a hellish froth whilst flipping the stunned cops the bony bird. Priceless.
“Any man who's got the guts to sell his soul for love ... has got the power to change the world.”
If anybody other than Sam Elliott had uttered those words in a movie - they'd never work in Hollywood again.
Little devilish tricks that Johnson plays with pop-culture references to the Occult - cartoons on the TV and flashcuts of the Underworld, even a snatched scene featuring the fire-demon from 1956's classic Night Of The Demon (see separate review) - are expanded into full-blown japery with such sights as the neon sign for a garage burning out to leave only the letters RAGE showing, Caretaker's continual hailing of Johnny as “Bonehead”, the immolation of a hoody's soul as seen through the ashen shards of his fear-scorched eyeballs, the melting of a row of parking meters and, of course, the lassoing of a bothersome helicopter. But for the most hypnotic and exquisitely depicted image it would be hard to beat the simply beautiful sight of two Ghost Riders - one from the present day and the other from the 18th Century - going hell-for-leather across a twilight desert. This shot, alone, makes you weep for what could have been if only Johnson had had the courage to fully let-rip. But, adding all these magical, or diabolical moments up, it becomes apparent that you would really have to be black-hearted and soulless not to fall for its daft, but giddy charm. Another clever thing is that Johnson even finds the time to show us the aftermath of the Rider's big-city debut, which is something that a lot of filmmakers would forget once they have unleashed their titular superhero.
“Call me old fashioned - I'm funny that way - but human sacrifice makes me nervous.”
But even if the image is pretty much spot-on, and Russell Boyd's cinematography majestic in true Sergio Leone style, the action set-pieces with Satan Jnr's terrible tryst - elemental demons Gressil, Wallow and wiffy-spirit on the wind Abigor - are incredibly cheesy and thoroughly anticlimactic to the film's detriment. In fact, if the film wasn't so carnival-colourful and so downright likeable, this singular lack of interesting menace would damn it irredeemably. But, in view of the balance of good and evil, the conflict here in Ghost Rider is actually incredibly ham-fisted and badly conceived. Villainous confrontations are so lacklustre and bereft of either aggression or jeopardy that Wes Bentley's Blackheart is easily forgotten about even whilst the film is on. And that is a woeful miscalculation. Sundry soul-incinerations take place - in one scene an entire saloon full of Hell's Angels (aptly enough) are turned into volcanic parodies of the exhibits in Madame Tussaud's - but we never once fear Bentley and his shallow goons. Drawn without suspense or fanfare from the elements in which they have been hiding, the trio are vacuous bystanders who serve only to stall the Rider in his mission, denying us the excitement of escalating stakes. Bentley's Blackheart actually comes to mimic something out of TV's Buffy once he turns on the blazing eyes and fangs look, reducing the threat still further.
“Your soul is stained by the blood of the innocents. Feel their pain.”
Much better value is Sam Elliott's grizzled old Caretaker, a cowpoke-cum-gravedigger who latches onto Johnny Blaze and teaches him the ways of the hellspawn. Elliott, who, as I've said a few times before, can lay claim to owning “officially” the Best Voice In Movies, is great as the lantern-jawed old sage. Dwelling on the shadowy border between being saint or sinner, and even though his best sequence is cut unbelievably short - and after a truly mesmerising build-up to a re-jigged Ghost Riders In The Sky, as well - his spirit and pure smirk-inducing attitude still steal the show. And then, of course, there is Eva Mendes. Strangely enough, I have never warmed to the actress before her turn here as Johnny's first and only love, her stretched features and amber glow somehow masking her abilities to bring a character to life. Now, I'm not suggesting that Roxanne is anything too remarkable in this, the fan to Ghost Rider's flame, you could say, but Mendes is certainly in on the joke and plays up to it with relish. Hardly once taking herself seriously, she skirts around the whole comic book hero shtick with tongue wedged firmly in cheek. And this is totally necessary because, despite his insistence, just like Johnson, that Ghost Rider is his absolute favourite of all the superheroes, Cage is completely hamming it up as well. Whether spouting life-long love for one another or addressing the fact that Johnny's head lights up like a Christmas tree whenever he is in the presence of evil, the pair contrive to create a sit-com relationship that sees both utterly dumbed-down when together. Witness the press interview, for example, or for the most jaw-droppingly pantomimic moment, when Johnny confesses to her exactly why he missed their dinner date. These elements certainly conspired to take audiences out of the movie as well as the often inept action scenes.
But, to end on a further positive note, there is also a great score from composer Christopher Young, himself no stranger to music from the Abyss, having scored the first two Hellraiser movies all those years ago. Right now enjoying a bit of a rebirth, what with Spider-Man 3 on the go as well, Young brings a few powerful cues of heroic derring-do to the proceedings but manages to intermingle them with some satanic passages, backed appropriately with gothic choral voices. His main theme is hardly memorable in the musical pantheon of superherodom, but it is fairly catchy, strangely eerie and nicely pumped-up, just the same.
So, nicely-conceived but lost hopelessly up its own exhaust, Ghost Rider will be a mess to some, but a guilty pleasure to others. Personally, I seem to enjoy it more each time I see it. I Just wish this extended cut actually gave the demons a bit more to do other than stand around trying to look dangerous.
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