Monday, June 15, 2020
Reeling Backward: "Ghost Rider" (2007)
"Ghost Rider" came out the year before "Iron Man," which marks the official kickoff of the Marvel Cinematics Universe aka MCU. This puts it in the company of various other superhero movies based on Marvel Comics, which has been feast-or-famine territory.
These non-MCU films include the X-Men series, the first two Spider-Man iterations, a pair of lackluster Fantastic Four flicks and horrid attempted reboot, "Hulk," "Daredevil," "Elektra," various Punisher movies and the Blade trilogy, which has been deeply memory-holed by people still insisting that "Black Panther" was the first black superhero film.
"Ghost Rider" was pretty well savaged by critics but did solid business, enough to spur a 2011 sequel subtitled "Spirit of Vengeance." That did less business but was made for about half what the first one was, so it's not inconceivable that another one could ride again.
Plus, star Nicolas Cage seems to be riding something of a career resurgence. (Though he has reportedly sworn off the character.)
"Ghost Rider" has the reputation of being total garbage, and while it's not very good I would put it more in the trashy category -- meaning it has redeeming values even as it misses its targets, or takes aim at unworthy ones.
Tonally the movie isn't quite a straight-out comedy, which would put it years ahead of the watershed of "Guardians of the Galaxy," but something closer to self-conscious kitsch. Most of the actors seem to realize they're in a goofy movie and play their scenes with a mischievous twinkle in their eye and a "cashing a check" smirk on their lips.
If someone ever set out to make a superhero movie with the heart of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," they'd get something pretty close to this.
Strangely the one member of the cast who seems to be more or less playing it straight is Cage himself. He portrays stunt rider/pawn of the devil Johnny Blaze with a sort of sullen Elvis Presley shtick. His Johnny has a dead-eye stare and vaguely Southern warble. He spends most of his time cooped up in his garage/apartment in a ratty neighborhood, poring over books on the occult.
Cage doesn't transform into the flaming-skull, hog-riding antihero until one-third of the way through the film's runtime, which largely feels like wasted time. Here we establish the parameter of Blaze's history: son of a low-rent carnival stunt rider, he made a pact with the devil at age 17 to cure his pop's terminal cancer.
Alas, ol' Mephistopheles (Peter Fonda, extravagantly pompadoured and growly) plays dirty pool and immediately has dad killed during his next performance.
Johnny rides on down the road, leaving behind his once-and-only love, Roxanne. Twenty years later he has become the world's most famous stunt rider, known for leaping his motorcycle recklessly over impossible spans and recovering from seemingly fatal crashes on a routine basis.
His only real friend is Mack (Donal Logue), who arranges all the stunts and leads the crew, but keeps getting fooled by Johnny, such as bringing in military helicopters for him to jump over at a football stadium. I'd call Mack his drinking buddy, except Johnny don't drink, preferring martini glasses full of jelly beans or other sugary treats.
As far as lady loves in superhero movies go, Roxanne is pretty much the bottommost drawer. Played by Eva Mendes in full pout mode, Roxanne became a TV reporter who acts haughty but appears to have very little self-esteem. After Johnny stands her up at a restaurant to go hellfire-burnin', Roxanne downs a bottle of wine and demands that the waiter tell her she's pretty.
Wes Bentley practically slithers as the heavy, Blackheart, who's supposed to be the rebel son of the Devil, sort of the way Mephistopheles was for God, or something. He's a shrimpy, pale dude all in black whose superpowers are a freezing touch and a totally douche-y personality.
I'm a little unclear on the metaphysics-slash-mythological backdrop. It seems the Devil creates ghost riders via a contract in blood, granting them powers but forcing them to act as his "bounty hunters" to go after people who are also indebted to them.
Apparently an Old West ghost rider named Carter Slade, a sheriff-turned-villain back when they rode horses instead of motorcycles, refused to uphold his end of the deal, stealing a contract for 1,000 evil souls in the town of San Venganza. Blackheart wants it so he can use their power to take over the world, and the Devil orders Johnny to get it back.
Wait, so the Devil... doesn't want to unleash hell on Earth? That seems a little off-brand for him.
Sam Elliott turns up as the gravedigger at a local cemetery where Johnny wakes up after his first transformation into the Rider. He seems to know an awful lot about the Ghost Rider employee benefit plan, schooling him in his newfound super-powers.
It includes the usual strength and durability upgrades, not to mention turning his head into a flaming skull. This is part of the hellfire Johnny controls, which not only burns but can transform inanimate objects into their melty fire-and-brimstone equivalent. So Johnny's high-handled chopper becomes a screaming, twisted machine with burning wheels and a shotgun turns into a damnation-shooting boomstick.
His favorite weapon is a length of chain he keeps coiled around his torso or the back of his bike, which when enflamed he uses to snag and burn his enemies.
The other biggie power is the Penance Stare, wherein the Rider has an evildoer look into his eyes (sockets, anyway) and they are confronted with the pain of all the innocents hurt over the course of their lives. Basically, they die a horrible death while confronting the stains upon their soul. Blackheart doesn't have one of those, but we shall see how that turns out.
The CGI effects of "Ghost Rider" were criticized at the time, but they look fine to me. The biggest downside is that the Rider doesn't look or sound anything like Nicolas Cage, his voice turning into the usual growly thing with a bit of reverberating ghost quiver.
Generally studios don't want to pay big stars a bunch of money and then hide their beautiful faces. "Iron Man" cleverly solved this with a HUD display inside his helmet so we still see Tony Stark. Here, it basically switches between Cage and the Rider.
I thought I caught Rebel Wilson in an early bit role as a punk girl who is saved by the Rider. Brett Cullen plays Johnny's doomed dad, and Laurence Breuls, Matthew Wilkinson and Daniel Frederiksen play a trio of fallen angels who act as Blackheart's lickspittle minions. Strangely, he never throws them at the Rider at once, preferring one-on-one encounters where they are easily trounced.
Mark Steven Johnson wrote and directed "Ghost Rider" after the relative success of "Daredevil," which sold a decent amount of tickets despite despite being not very good. Neither is this one, though I can't say I hated the film.
It's goofy and doesn't make a whole lot of sense, freely violating its own internal logic whenever the rules don't suit. Example: Carter Slade shows up in the place we most expected him, just so we can get a cool traveling montage of flaming motorcycle rider next to flaming horseman. Then he casually rides off, saying he could only "change one more time," bowing out of the final battle with Blackheart.
Really? How did Carter know this? Did Mephistopheles provide him with a handy readout or some such? I gotta say, he fares pretty well: a lawman who betrayed his badge for greed, ran away from the devil, lived an immortal lifespan, trains up his replacement and then goes for One Last Ride without having to actually sacrifice himself in classic cinematic wingman style.
As eternal damnation scenarios go, that's a pretty sweet gig.