Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, April 26, 2017

WHY DO I OWN THIS?: Ghost Rider (2007)

Out of Marvel's library of superheroes, Ghost Rider seems like an odd choice for a film adaptation. The flaming skull headed biker is well known but has never been a universally recognized figure. Truthfully, the vengeance-minded wraith is deeply rooted to the decade that birthed him. Ghost Rider arose out of several mid-seventies fads. The character combined Evel Knievel stunt riding and the demonic horrors of movies like “The Exorcist” and “The Omen.” For bonus points, it threw in some iconography that wouldn't be out of place on a Black Sabbath album. Yet a “Ghost Rider” movie had been in development since the early nineties, before the massive success of “X-Men” and “Spider-Man.” When that adaptation finally roared into movie theaters in 2007, it was greeted with negative reviews from critics and “Ghost Rider” fans. The film is generally regarded as a misfire for everyone involved. So why do I own it?

“Ghost Rider” also has its roots in an even older story: The Faustian bargain. Johnny Blaze is the son of a motorcycle stuntman, who rides his chopper through flaming rings at state fairs all across the country. When his father is diagnosed with incurable lung cancer, Johnny is approached by a strange man. The man claims to be the devil and offers to heal Blaze's dad... In exchange for his soul. The boy agrees. His father's cancer is cured but the old man dies anyway. Thirty years later, Johnny Blaze is a hugely popular stunt rider in his own right. That's when the devil comes calling, tasking Johnny with tracking down his demonic offspring Blackheart and the scroll of damned souls he's after. To accomplish this goal, Blaze transforms into the Ghost Rider.

Ghost Rider is a very silly movie. The film revolves around imagery that looks fine on a comic book page but appears deeply goofy in live action. Ghost Rider looks bad ass in four colors. In flesh and blood, when created with somewhat dodgy CGI, a biker with a flaming skull looks funny. It doesn't help that the script sticks Ghost Rider with goofy one-liners, such as when he discourages a police helicopter from pursuing him. In the comics, one of Ghost Rider's trademark moves is to drive his hell-cycle up the side of a building, leaving behind a flaming trail. The movie replicates this without dialing back the ridiculousness. Ghost Rider's enemies, a trio of fallen angels representing different elements, also border unintentional comedy. They all dress in draping leather trench coats. The wind spirit's hair is always blowing in the wind. The water spirit is always damp. Thanks for giving us those visual clues, movie.

Some of “Ghost Rider's” goofy aspects are grating. Director Mark Steven Johnson – who already had one mediocre Marvel movie under his belt with “Daredevil” –  adds numerous melodramatic flourishes. Crash-zooms and whip pans are often utilized, drawing undue attention to themselves. Yet some of “Ghost Rider's” silliness is kind of endearing. A scene where Ghost Rider fights off some rowdy crooks in a holding cell is the definition of cheese ball, pulpy fun. How the Rider grabs his trademark chain and his spiked studded leather jacket are mildly amusing. One scene even has Ghost Rider giving some cops the bony, middle finger!

The action scenes are often ridiculous but in a creative way. Such as the unique ways Ghost Rider uses his red hot chain whip to dispatch his demonic enemies. The script lays down important plot points, like the Ghost Rider's penance stare ability and Blackheart's natural lack of a soul, in a very heavy handed fashion. You immediately recognize that these story points will be important latter. Yet that awkwardness is sort of endearing. The film almost feels like it was written by a kid. And I mean that as a compliment. By the time two generations of Ghost Riders – one on flaming motorcycle, one on flaming horse – ride through the desert to the ominous chords of “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” the film has fallen on the right side of ridiculous. And, if nothing else, the melted demon chrome of the Hell Cycle is awfully neat to look at.

Starring as Johnny Blaze is Academy Award winning thespian Nicolas Cage. Cage is a huge comic book fan. He took his stage name from Luke Cage and named his son Kal-El, for goodness' sake. Cage was determined to be a superhero or supervillain, his name getting attached to characters like Superman, Scarecrow, Green Goblin, and John Constantine. Yet Ghost Rider, a character he has tattooed on his body, was the only superhero Cage would actually get to play. Cage is, to put it simply, the perfect actor for “Ghost Rider.” He imbues the movie with a number of unnecessary quirks. Johnny Blaze chugs coffee, eats jellybeans by the handful, and loves monkeys and the Carpenters. Cage overdoes it with the wild facial expressions and crazy hand motions. It's a ridiculous, over-the-top performance and perfectly suited to the material. “Ghost Rider” lives and dies based on how crazy Nicolas Cage is acting at any given time.

“Ghost Rider's” supporting cast also occupies this borderland of enjoyable stupidity and blockbuster tedium. Casting Peter Fonda as the devil in a motorcycle movie is an amusing in-joke. Fonda hams it up nicely, growling with a weird, quasi-Southern accent. Wes Bentley plays Blackheart, Mephisto's felonious son. Bentley has admitted that he made this movie during a long period of heroin addiction. It's easy to see the controlled substances influencing his wide-eyed performance, which abandons any sense of good taste for overstated glowering. Sam Elliot trots out his well-worn cowboy act as Blaze's mentor, to mildly amusing effect.

On the other end of the spectrum is Eva Mendes. As Blaze's love interest, Mendes seems to actively look down on the material. She has no chemistry with Cage and steps through her comedic scenes with absolutely no grace. In her defense, Mendes' part is pretty shitty, a standard love interest who is imperiled in the last act. Donal Logue, as Blaze's short-lived buddy, pushes the comic relief shtick a little too far, often coming off as annoying. And each of the actors playing Blackheart's henchmen are terrible. All of them affect odd accents and overact under their modest make-up.

Why Do I Own This?: “Ghost Rider” was made near the end of the period when Nic Cage was a genuine box office draw, before the IRS came calling for his pyramids and dinosaur bones. His star power is probably why the movie made 228 million worldwide. “Ghost Rider” is clearly a deeply flawed film, possessing a goofball tone and a deeply hacky script. Having said that, I still find myself enjoying the movie more often than not. It's not good in any traditional sense. As overcooked, comic book trash, it's fairly entertaining. The film doesn't elevate the superhero genre. In fact, Johnson's film contributes to its childish reputation. Yet the fun I have with “Ghost Rider” was more than enough to justify the five bucks I spent on the DVD. My proudest purchase? Nah. But I'm all right with this one stinking up my collection. [7/10]

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