There’s an amount of suspended disbelief inherent in any movie based on a comic book: When Batman walks up to someone, no one ever says, “Why are you wearing all that creepy, fetishy rubber and a mask?” And that’s OK. Comic-book movies, even/especially the best of them, aren’t meant to be taken completely seriously but enjoyed in the moment as the pop spectacles they are. But oh, Ghost Rider could be the most taxing film I’ve seen in years when it comes to forfeiting your self-respect in order to glean whatever brief joy may be available in the nonsensical plot and idiotic dressing passing itself off as attitude or style. On that great continuum of comic-book flicks, writer-director Mark Steven Johnson’s ode to phallic supremacy and giant flaming skulls is closer to Captain America than Spider-Man; in fact, the trailer for Spider-Man 3 was attached to Ghost Rider, and those two or three minutes were more entertaining than the actual film I was there to see.
Nicolas Cage stars as the unfortunately named Johnny Blaze, a stuntman who makes a living driving his motorcycle very fast over large objects and almost dying in the process. Johnny Blaze — J.B. to his buds — drives so crazy because he’s trying to outrun the demons of his past, which in this case are actual demons: As a teenager, young J.B. (played with wooden confusion by Matt Long) sells his soul to Mephistopheles to save his dying dad from cancer. His dad gets better, but what with the devil being kind of a prick, J.B.’s dad winds up dying the next day during one of the flaming-hoop motorcycle jumps that he and his son perform at carnivals. This causes J.B. to hold an understandable grudge against the devil, who soon confronts J.B. and gives him the standard Corleone rigmarole: One day I will call upon you to perform a service, etc., etc. With his father’s semi-murder on his hands, J.B. blows out of town, abandoning his girlfriend, Roxanne, in the process.
Now that J.B.’s all grown up, he’s still riding bikes and trying to kill himself, assisted by his sidekick, Mack (Donal Logue), who’s J.B.’s pit crew chief and requisite less-attractive friend. One day, as J.B. prepares an ill-advised stunt to jump the length of a football field over several helicopters, Roxanne (Eva Mendes), now a reporter, shows back up to interview him for some arbitrary news outlet. J.B. sees this confluence of his past and present as a “sign,” and Cage amps up the cornpone charm and gruesome Southern accent as he gets all twitterpated and asks her out. Roxanne, being your typical spineless woman in a comic-book movie whose sole purpose is to offer emotional and sexual succor to the hero no matter how many times he does her wrong, accepts.
Predictably, this is when Satan reappears to cash in his marker. He assigns J.B. to be the Ghost Rider, a kind of gopher for the devil who does the dark lord’s bidding in hopes of earning a reprieve from the curse. Mephistopheles sticks J.B. on a chopper — an evil chopper — and sends him after Blackheart (Wes Bentley), Mephistopheles’ own kid who’s after some kind of contract that Mephistopheles has tried and failed to collect from previous Ghost Riders. Johnson plays fast and loose with the metaphysical specifics of said contract, but apparently it contains 1,000 evil souls, or ones that are eviler than usual anyway, and whoever gets the contract can use it to unleash those souls and become, um, super-evil. Why Blackheart or Mephistopheles needs that much extra juice is pretty vague, since Mephistopheles already has the power to enslave men’s souls in exchange for petty favors, and Blackheart can kill people just by touching them. But hey, in Hell, it’s all about ego. Ghost Rider is aided in his quest by a local cemetery caretaker (Sam Elliott), who pretty conveniently knows everything there is about Ghost Riders, and gives him clues to help him.
Cage, who draws his stage name from another Marvel character, has given some stunning performances in the past, namely Leaving Las Vegas and Adaptation. But his work here devolves into outright wackiness, complete with little character quirks that feel completely alien to the film: J.B.’s penchant for jelly beans and Carpenters tunes, or the bizarre scene in which he drinks hot coffee right from the pot before a jump. What’s worse, the decision to make J.B. so resolutely Southern turns him into a distracting caricature instead of a believable protagonist. Mendes isn’t called upon to do more than pout her lips and wear halfway-unbuttoned shirts, and acquits herself nobly. As Mephistopheles, Fonda hams it up all the way, and winds up being the only honest-feeling thing in the movie.
It’s J.B.’s mission to stop the contract from being collected, but Johnson can’t even imbue that flimsy carrot-and-stick setup with anything approaching tension. Part of the problem is that movies based on comic books are inherently predictable; Spider-Man or Batman or Superman may suffer setbacks, and may even watch their friends die, but they always win. Always. But the far greater problem weighing on Ghost Rider (and Ghost Rider) is Johnson’s fierce determination to avoid finding any kind of consistent tone. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man series has goofy earnestness; Batman Begins revels in the dark depths of the hero’s fate; Superman Returns has an unhealthy messiah complex. But Ghost Rider straddles the line between pulp tale and self-mocking farce, which makes it impossible to take seriously, even on the light level demanded by comic-book movies.
For instance: When J.B. is out on his first night as Ghost Rider, doing good and avenging, he accidentally breaks his date with Roxanne, who first checks her cell phone to see if she’s missed any calls, then — and please pardon my dramatic italics — pulls a Magic 8 Ball from her purse and shakes it in hopes of finding an answer for why she’s been stood up. Johnson’s sudden and puzzling leap from low pop art to the kind of cheap sight gag you’d see in one of David Zucker’s overtired farces is off-putting and laughable. Is the viewer meant to believe that Roxanne actually carries around that novelty toy for occasions such as this one? Johnson is doing something deeply wrong here by refusing to give his fictional world its own constant reality, which in turn makes it impossible to believe in the characters, and their lives, and their actions, and their consequences.
Perhaps worst of all is Johnson’s curious take on the ins and outs of damnation. As J.B. says to the caretaker, “He may have my soul, but he doesn’t have my spirit.” The caretaker then responds, “Any man who sells his soul for love has the power to change the world,” before going on to pontificate that since J.B. sold his soul for the “right reason,” maybe that “puts God on [his] side.” Johnson’s wavering fictional universe is one where the devil is everywhere and God doesn’t show up much, and where Johnny Blaze hates the cursed monster he sees himself becoming but also won’t relinquish that curse when given the opportunity. Johnny pines for a second chance to fix his past, a shot at atonement to make things right, but he’d rather be the devil’s whipping boy than live free. If Johnson’s hero can’t even summon the courage to save himself, how can he save the world?
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.Crazy at Heart and Absolutely Stupid on Top
Film | February 16, 2007 | Comments ()