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Ghost Rider (2007)
Tonight's Feature Presentation

GHOST RIDER (2007)

Starring: Nicolas Cage, Eva Mendes, Sam Elliott, Peter Fonda, Wes Bentley, Donal Logue

Written & Directed By: Mark Steven Johnson

The Short Version

It’s a comic book/Western/biker flick, featuring Peter Fonda as Mephistopheles!

And yes, all of the above are awesome things.

You’ve got a chain-wielding biker hero with a flaming skull for a head.  How much cooler can you get?

For many involved, Ghost Rider is a labor of love, and it shows.

Ghost Rider is a very underappreciated comic book flick that deserves your attention.


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

JALAPENO JACK POPPERS.

Served hot and awesome for snacking.


Pairs Well With...

LONE STAR BEER.

Serving suggestion: if the bottle suddenly becomes so cold that it starts to freeze to your hand, put it down and run like hell.  “You know alcohol gives me nightmares.”

“You’re a hotshot, ain’tcha, boy?”


How does something as cool as Ghost Rider fly under so many radars?

Based on a comic book, filmed like a Western with old school horror overtones, peppered with a major dose of Evel Knievel, and – oh yeah – centered around a hero with a flaming skull for a head who’s been empowered by the Devil to send souls back to Hell, Ghost Rider covers a lot bases at once, and incredibly, it gets just about everything right.  It’s fun, it’s exciting, it’s (mostly) well written, it’s (mostly) well acted, and it’s well directed.  So why doesn’t Ghost Rider ever seem to get mentioned in the same breath as Iron ManIs it because Ghost Rider isn’t an Avenger?  (Which, all things considered, is rather ironic, don’t you think?)

While I can guess at a few reasons, it’s time to give the Devil his due and have a look at Ghost Rider.

The Ghost Rider comic canon is fairly complex (there have, in fact, been a few different Riders), so for the film, writer/director Mark Steven Johnson (Daredevil) boils things down to their most essential, accessible form, while at the same time adding a twist that if anything actually makes the whole concept make more sense.  (Yes, it’s that rare sighting of a movie that actually offers some improvement over already good source material.)

We begin with the narrative voice of the venerable Sam Elliott (Hulk), whom we will come to know as the Caretaker:

“It's said that the West was built on legends. Tall tales that help us make sense of things too great or too terrifying to believe. This is the legend of the Ghost Rider.”

He then explains that every generation, the Devil takes a mortal man who has sold his soul and bestows upon him the powers of Hell on Earth.  That man becomes the Ghost Rider, who serves as the Devil’s bounty hunter, returning to Hell things that have escaped to Earth, or worse.  He’s also tasked with running other errands on occasion, and a century and a half back, one Rider was tasked with collecting a contract worth over 1000 souls from the town of San Verganza.  Realizing the power this would give the Devil, this Rider did what none had done before: he deified the Devil, and proceeded to outrun him, contract in hand, to be hidden for all time…

Flash forward to the late 20th Century.  Young Johnny Blaze (Matt Long, Reflections) is a stunt motorcyclist caught in the shadow of his father, Barton Blaze (Brett Cullen, Stewardess School), with whom he tours as a father/son daredevil act.  Their relationship is rocky at best, but when he learns that his father is dying of cancer, Johnny is devastated.  That’s when a stranger he quickly comes to realize is the Devil (Peter Fonda, Escape from LA) shows up with an offer: Barton’s cancer will be cured at the cost of Johnny’s soul.  Johnny agrees.

The next morning, Barton is cancer free.  By noon, he’s dead anyway in a motorcycle accident.

Johnny is furious, but a deal is a deal.  His soul is sold, and at such time as the Devil chooses to collect, he is destined to become his era’s Ghost Rider: the Devil’s bounty hunter.

Flash forward to the present of 2007.  Johnny Blaze (Nicolas Cage, The Rock) is the hottest daredevil cyclist since Evel Knievel, but he’s still haunted by his past.  What he doesn’t know is that the Devil’s son, Blackheart (Wes Bentley, American Beauty), is after the contract of San Verganza, hoping to use its power to unseat his father and bring about Hell on Earth.  That makes it time for the Devil to call upon his Ghost Rider, and for Johnny to give the Devil his due…

There are just a few unfortunately significant things standing between Ghost Rider and a spot as one of the top comic book movies ever.  Even with those things standing in the way, though, it’s still a damn fun movie.

First of all, Nic Cage is perfectly cast in a way that transcends the cliché of the phrase.  How perfectly, you ask?  It turns out that the Ghost Rider character has always been one of his personal comic book heroes, to the point where the makeup department had to cover up the real Ghost Rider tattoo he already had on his arm when it came time to film his shirtless scene.  Does he know this character?  Oh, yeah.  Indeed, with the script already in hand, he helped Mark Steven Johnson refine the character into someone more believably human and less stock cliché, and the end results are nothing short of fantastic.  (Yes, it is awesome that Johnny Blaze pops jellybeans from a martini glass instead of drinking Jack from the bottle, and that he’s more into The Carpenters than he is into AC/DC.)  To me, Cage has always gotten an unfairly bad rap (you know you’ve got it bad when even Keanu gets more mainstream love than you do), and in Ghost Rider, he once again shows that his unique style can produce some amazing stuff.  Somewhere between Elvis Presley and Michael Douglas and David Lynch, you’ll find Nic Cage, and that combo is exactly what was needed to pull of Johnny Blaze.  Hell, even the costume department basically just looked at what Cage already had in his closet and went with it.  That’s how perfect he is for this part.

Right behind him is Peter Fonda, whose casting (at Cage’s suggestion, no less) is nothing short of a master stroke.  Who better to play the Devil in a biker comic book movie than the man who designed and rode the Captain America bike – which, by the way, is the template for Johnny’s own bike here – in Easy Rider?  He is the epitome of the notion of “the Devil as Cool,” while at the same time pulling off a marvelous malevolence that does nothing to take away from his essential Peter Fonda-ness.  (His first words in the film come after he sees a devil-themed mural painted around the entrance to a carnival ride, to which he smiles and says “Far out.”)  If he isn’t one of the all time top five Devils on film, he’s definitely top ten.

And then, of course, there’s Sam Elliott.  You can never go wrong with Sam Elliott.  He both grounds the film and bestows upon it a legendary quality, and… let’s just say that if you’re not smiling by the time he’s through, there’s something wrong with you.  Again, the casting could not be better.

So far, so good.

Unfortunately, despite being the Devil (okay, technically, he’s Mephistopheles, but all demonology aside, as portrayed and even as referred to by other characters in this movie, he’s the Devil), Peter Fonda is not our main villain.  That honor goes to Wes Bentley as Blackheart, and frankly, he’s just not up to it.  While he doesn’t totally stink up the place, he just struts around like an arrogant poseur and doesn’t actually, y’know, do much of anything.  Part of this is the writing, but most of it is a one-note, monotonous performance from Bentley.  (To be fair, we’d find out why a few years later, when he admitted that pretty much every job he took during the previous decade had been to pay for his drug habit; good for him for finally going clean.)  And since one of the greatest strengths of any comic book movie is its villain… let’s just say that Ghost Rider takes a pretty big hit even if our villain has interestingly portrayed though depthless henchmen, and that it’s a good thing that side of the angels is so stacked.

Specifically, it’s stacked with Hell’s ultimate angel.

Normally, I’m no fan of CGI characters, but Ghost Rider gets its right.  Why?  We’ll go the comparison route.  When Eric Bana turned into the Incredible Hulk in Hulk, the result was a stupid looking green Smurf that was completely out of place in the real world.  When Nic Cage turns into the Ghost Rider here, it’s still Nic Cage, only his head has been replaced by a very well-rendered CGI skull (based on a scan of Cage’s real skull, by the way) that is on very well-rendered fire.  It does not look cartoonish, it does not look stupid, and it does not look out of place.  Instead, it kicks ass.  Indeed, the Ghost Rider may be the single most awesome looking comic book hero ever.  You want to see an effects job well done?  Look no further.  Stack that on top of an amazing human performance by Cage, and you’re way past ready to rock.

Specifically, you’re rocking with a script that gets away with a lot more than it should, which is great for the most part but still leaves the occasional sour taste.  As noted, it gets away with a bit of a reinvention of the character, but that ends up working extremely well.  On the flip side, for all of the attention paid to our hero, our villain gets next to none; the audience is provided just enough snippets of information to allow the story to move along, but really, there’s just zero depth to our bad guy, even in the extended cut.  Hell, even his henchmen get more of a backstory than he does, and they’re one-dimensional themselves.  Stack that on top of the aforementioned performance of Wes Bentley, and what could have been one of the greatest comic book flicks ever gets weighed down to a more standard “damn cool.”

I suspect that those involved would still take that any day.

For me, though, I must say that the biggest letdown about Ghost Rider even beyond the flat villain is that it plays to the single most tired, worn out, and really damned annoying cliché in comic book movie history.  I refer, of course, to the hero having to give up and/or lose the girl, which Johnny Blaze does not just once in Ghost Rider, but twice.  Were I still doing numeric ratings, that would be a point and a half out of ten knocked right off the top.  It’s tired, it’s been done to death, and as both a fan and a critic, I’m sick of it.  I’ve seen it done acceptably all of twice in the past ten years, and this is not one of those times.  In every other genre, losing the girl would be the brave choice, but when it comes to the comic book stuff, to keep the girl would represent true creativity.

Back to the plus side, though, there is plenty of creativity – and stealing from the best – to be found in most other aspects of Ghost Rider.  Let’s face it, Johnny Blaze is Nic Cage as Evel Knievel… and if you’ve ever seen Evel Knievel jump, you’ll recognize some of those stunts.  Meanwhile, pretty much everyone contributes to the atmosphere of Ghost Rider as a Western while still hanging on to good old fashioned gothic horror overtones (especially when Blaze is transforming), very much living up to the director’s stated aspiration of making something akin to Sergio Leone meets Hammer.  I was also very impressed to see that the day after the Ghost Rider completely tears up a street, the police, fire department, and so on show up and examine the devastation which is still there and, well, act like real cops and firefighters.  When do you ever see that happen?

Bottom line, Ghost Rider may not be perfect and may actually fail in the primary villain department, but it’s just got way too much else going for it to deserve the tepid rap it seems to have overall.  At the end of the day, it’s still incredibly fun stuff, and if you can’t rock out to a comic book hero whole looks like a biker with a flaming skull for a head and whose weapon is a flaming chain and who puts bad guys through instant damnation just by staring at them… do you even know what awesome is?

Seriously, folks, check this one out.  Whether you’re a comic book fan or an action fan or even just a biker, there’s plenty to dig about Ghost Rider.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, February, 2012

This review is for Young, Ron, and Dan, who now ride with the ghosts.


You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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