When studios elect not to screen a movie for critics, it usually says something about the movie. In the case of Ghost Rider, it’s kind of a moot point. Dude, they actually let the guy who made
Daredevil direct another picture? Starring Nicolas Cage as a demonic, hog-humping leather daddy on fire? Oh yes they did, and it doesn’t seem entirely coincidental that the plot involves selling your soul to the devil.
Improbably enough, Daredevil has earned something of a minor cult status, and not just with fanboys. Or rather, it has cultivated the affections of some particularly discriminating fanboys: Arnaud Desplechin and more than one editor of Film Comment magazine have professed their admiration in terms having nothing to do with snarky contrarianism. It should be noted that their esteem is for the “daring new version” released on DVD, which for all its potential improvements—I haven’t seen it, there being only so many hours allotted to my existence on earth—was presumably not so daring as to replace Ben Affleck with another actor.
Should writer-director Mark Steven Johnson ever deliver a daring new version of Ghost Rider, here’s hoping he puts the “cut” in “director’s cut.” Until it devolves into exactly the sort of lifeless CGI spaz attack you’d expect, there’s some legitimate pop pleasure to be had from the year’s first jumbo-sized popcorn flick.
In the title role, Nicolas Cage proves there’s nothing, nothing he won’t lend his name to, but also his knack for winning self-deprecation. Actors have collected paychecks with far more disdain than he brings to Johnny Blaze, a melancholy motorcycle stuntman who once sold his soul to Mephistopheles (Peter Fonda) in return for his ailing father’s life. Unbeknownst to JB, the devil’s about to come calling, as is the diabolically bodacious Roxanne (Eva Mendes), the inevitable girl reporter/love interest/Botox babe. Sam Elliott co-stars as the crusty old Caretaker, a mysterious grave keeper who—oh, never mind: It’s way too silly to get into.
Enter Blackheart, a/k/a Satan Jr. (Wes Bentley), a peevish little snot who arrives on the scene with a clutch of minions possessed of elemental superpowers and shitty outfits. Blackheart’s all worked up over some ancient soul scroll he’s got to wrest away from Daddy so he can supersize his evil or whatever. Point is, Mephistopheles commands Ghost Rider to go kick their asses. He does this by reflecting pain and suffering back on them via an unholy form of eye contact called “The Penance Stare” and, when that doesn’t work, by yelling really loud and throwing clumps of dirt.
Up till now, I thought “Johnny Blaze” was just something Method Man liked calling himself. Ignorant as I am of the Marvel comic book source material, I can only suppose that the print version of the hero is a tad more rad than his on-screen iteration. A nine-year-old could think up hotter tricks for a demonic biker bound only by the laws of CGI, and yet what pleasure is to be had here comes from precisely its pre-adolescent simplicity and enthusiasm—the feeling that it has, in fact, been made by a nine-year-old. You can feel it in the immensely corny, hilariously unembarrassed overture that establishes the Ghost Rider mythology; in the avid, oblivious embrace of cliché; in the half-baked yet totally sincere ethics lesson about accepting responsibility for your choices, and in the pre-pubescent attitudes toward romance and sex. Johnson’s a hardcore, dime-store fanboy, not a revisionist-minded fauxteur like Christopher Nolan or Bryan Singer, and his giddy, goofball affection for the material sustained my goodwill until his underdeveloped grasp of form and rhythm let it slip away. The blank, frenetic exhaustion of the final reel acts like a kid who tries to snap out of a candy-binge coma by snorting lines of Pixy Stix.
Ghost Rider may lack both tongue and cheek, but Cage shoulders his flaming skull lightly. He honorably proceeds with a straight face until his face, supplanted by pixels, doesn’t matter anymore. “He may have my soul, but he doesn’t have my spirit,” proclaims the Rider, having thwarted Mephistopheles by choosing to stay damned, damned to ride, onward, soulless to Ghost Rider 2.