Clever casting and top-notch effects can’t fix a pandering, mass-audience-appeal script that refuses to let the Spirit of Vengeance fully out of his bottle.
Johnny Blaze (Nic Cage) is the son of a daredevil motorcycle stunt rider following in his father’s footsteps. He makes a deal with the Devil (Peter Fonda) in a moment of weakness but not for selfish or greedy reasons. Years later, the Devil’s son, Blackheart (Wes Bentley) escapes his father’s domain seeking an ancient scroll that will give him ultimate power on earth, forcing the Devil to at last call upon “the spirit of vengeance” that he placed inside Johnny Blaze. At night, in the presence of evil, the flesh of the man burns away to reveal the flaming skull and blazing stare of the Devil’s bounty hunter: Ghost Rider.
Nicolas Cage was cast as Johnny Blaze. The story was cobbled together from the best bits of all the comic book reboots that fans of Marvel’s Ghost Rider have had to endure. With Peter Fonda as the Devil, Wes Bentley his son, Sam Elliot as a mentor and Eve Mendes as a love interest, where did everything go afoul? For all the special effects money can buy, Ghost Rider himself wasn’t allowed to be what he really was: a demon-possessed stuntman wielding the fires of hell and working for the Devil himself. That’s right, sinners, this is a story with a history rooted in Hell, fallen angels, demons, possession, and all that Bible goodness… well, badness. Why hold back? Why not an R-rating?
The story goes that Cage requested or demanded a PG-13 film, presumably to give it wider appeal. That’s not the worst thing, especially in light of what a movie like Gore Verbinski’s remake of The Ring proved you can do with it. No blood or gore, just skulls, motorcycles, fire, and lots of screaming. The problem is that every time we see Ghost Rider about to do something cool or let something loose, a lack of budget or some incredibly bad scripting cuts it short. With a two-hour running time, we know we shouldn’t be seeing the title character all the time (why else would you hire Cage if you never see him?) but it’d be nice to see him actually follow through, wouldn’t it?
One example is how short the battle scenes are, as in “almost entirely in the trailer” short. Ghost Rider meets one of Blackheart’s henchman, henchman gets a shot in, Ghost Rider kicks his ass, and the sun comes up… repeat. Why don’t they attack all at once? Who knows. A lot of effort went into making everything look good and seamless, but there’s too much barking and not nearly enough biting. Everything feels reigned in, pandering to a fickle audience given too little credit for something more sophisticated and adult (read: evil). While there are a few clever and fun moments, they are given to much weight of against a concept that demands to be darker and more twisted (read: cheesy).
Between the effects, the actors, and what was passable in the script, Ghost Rider is an entertaining movie full of cool effects and characters. What it could have been with a few tweaks and a little less restraint is a great movie that might have had exiting audiences lined up to get in line to ride again. Sadly, Ghost Rider is emasculated by the very filmmakers who could have taken him from third-string comic superhero to top-billed headliner for a smash-hit franchise. Ranked against other superhero films, we’ll say it’s better than Spawn but not as good as Hulk. Ranked against other demons from hell, Boogeyman was more of an actual threat. Is it impossible to hope that there is a director’s cut or better, unrated version floating around out there?
(a two skull recommendation out of four)