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SECOND LOOK: Ghost Rider

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Written by Scott Meridew

What happens when you mix Nicholas Cage and Johnny Blaze? Johnny Cage. Now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk about Ghost Rider.

I’ve wanted to do a retrospective on Ghost Rider for a long time now, for two reasons. Number one, he is one of my favourite comic book characters. Number two, and I want you to brace yourself because this roller-coaster is about to take a big plunge… I don’t think it’s as bad a film as people say it is. There! I said it! It’s out there. Can’t take it back. Please don’t kill me! Okay, so it’s not perfect. There are a lot of flaws. But I think there one or two good things about this film and there is an enjoyable experience to be had. We might just have to look very hard for it. Very… very hard. I’m going to regret this, aren’t I?

Firstly, something that a lot of people overlook, this film does what any good adaption should do. It streamlines the original story and removes any extra bits that are not relevant to the story. I’m talking mainly about the origin story. In the original comic, Johnny Blaze’s father Barton dies and he is brought up by a stunt rider named “Crash” Simpson. Crash later is diagnosed as terminally ill, of Johnny makes a deal with the devil to save him at the cost of his own soul. Crash makes a miraculous recovery, only for the Devil to cause him to die in a motorcycle accident. In this film, there is no Crash Simpson. Barton is the one who Johnny makes the deal over and who he subsequently loses. This simplifies the plot without removing anything important to it. I feel this deserves attention.

So, Johnny Blaze is cursed by the Devil, also known as Mephistopheles, played by Peter Fonda, who I am confident to say is the coolest mother****er who ever walked the earth in this film. I’m serious! He plays the character so calm and wry that it makes it very difficult not to like him. Johnny grows up to become a stunt rider, played by Nicholas Cage (who looks nothing like the actor who plays the young version of Johnny Blaze, by the way! In fact that actor does a marginally better job than Cage!).

Which brings me to a little theory I like to call “The Nic Cage effect”. This is the theory that Nicholas Cage overacts in 50% of his films and in the other 50% he underacts. You don’t believe me? Look at Face/Off. Half the film he played an over-the-top character, the other an under-the-top character (is under-the-top even a phrase? It should be). And here I am relieved to say he does not overact. However, I am sad to say he does underact, making Johnny Blaze seem rather… boring. It’s not all his fault though. Part of it is the way Blaze is written, i.e. very poorly. Part of what made Blaze a great character to read was he was a nice, ordinary guy being forced into a nightmarish existence. He wasn’t a rock star, playing to packed crowds. He was your average joe, traveling the road, going from place to place. Here… he wears weird suits and eats martini glasses full of jellybeans. No. No. No. Hang your head in shame, film. You’ve been very bad.

So, in this film, Johnny is a very successful stunt rider, who continually cheats death. He believes he has been kept alive by Mephistopheles and is sure he will pay for his mistakes for the rest of his life. But he thinks redemption comes in the form of his childhood sweetheart, Roxanne. Eva Mendes‘s character, Roxanne Simpson is the most boring love interest I have ever seen. She has no purpose in the film except to be rescued. In the comics, she saves Johnny Blaze from the Devil. Here the most she ever does is shoot the villain a few times with a shotgun, which DOESN’T EVEN HURT HIM! But I could stomach this if her character was written well. Guess what? She’s not!

After Johnny abandons her all those years ago, she returns and claims that she doesn’t blame him for it. Oooookay. Sure. So then, Johnny asks her out on a date. She eventually agrees and is stood up by him, resulting in a scene when she drunkenly asks a waiter if he thinks she’s pretty (This made me want to find the writer, strap him down to a chair and make him watch an endless documentary about feminism until he learned his lesson). Again, she acts very reasonably, goes to his apartment and makes out with him at the earliest opportunity, only for him to ask her to leave, which she takes very well. This… NO! Women do not act like this! If a guy repeatedly abandoned and stood up a woman, they would not take it on the chin and keep throwing themselves at him! They would dump his sorry arse and move on! Even Mary-Jane in the Spider-Man films, a character who is again only there to be rescued, stopped pursing Peter Parker after he repeatedly disappointed her! GAH!

In fairness, he does have a reason for standing her up. Mephistopheles returns and transforms him into the Ghost Rider, spirit of vengeance and his bounty hunter on earth. And, let’s face it, Ghost Rider looks awesome, sounds awesome and is… AWESOME! He is everything I wanted the Ghost Rider to be on film. The CGI is actually very impressive and even up close looks like a real skull on fire. And, I have to admit, the bits where the fire turns blue when he sees Roxanne nearly made me tear up a little. Isn’t that odd? I didn’t cry when Mufasa died but I get all misty eyed at this? There is something seriously wrong with me.

So, Mephistopheles sends him after his son… Goth Jake Gyllenhaal? No, no. Actually he sends him after his son, Blackheart, played by Wes Bentley, who oddly enough, looks more like the young Johnny Blaze than Cage does (Although is nowhere near as good an actor as either). Blackheart plans to acquire a mystical contract that will allow him to create hell on earth. To do this, he assembles a Waterbender, Earthbender, Airbende… oh, wait. Sorry. “Fallen Angels” (Reminds me of another film about angels that Nic Cage did. That one sucked too), called “The Hidden” who take on the traits of the elements. Ghost Rider finds them and manages to kill the Hidden one by one. He meets a mysterious man called “The Caretaker”, played by Sam Elliott, who is the second coolest mother****er who ever walked the earth. . Stop giving me characters that are so goddamned likeable, film! You’re making it very hard for me to hate you.

The Caretaker knows a lot about being the Ghost Rider and Mephistopheles. So much so that the audience continually wonder “How does he know so much about the Ghost Rider?” Johnny Cage never seems to ask that question for some reason. He just accepts that he knows stuff like the underwritten character that he is. Johnny is hunted by the law, Blackheart goes after his friends and Roxanne and it is revealed that The Caretaker is actually a former Ghost Rider himself, to the surprise of nobody except Johnny himself. However, this does lead to a scene so cool it actually lowered the temperature of the room I was in, when the two Ghost Riders, one riding a flaming motorcycle, the other riding a flaming horse, ride through the desert to the song “Ghost Riders in the Sky”. The unequivocal coolness of this scene was melted though, when after reaching their destination, The Caretaker reveals that he only had the energy for one last transformation and fades away like he became one with the force or something. If he knew that transforming would kill him… then why did he do it? To help Johnny? All he did was ride with him. He never actually helped him defeat Blackheart. Did you just kill yourself so that Johnny wouldn’t be lonely during the trip? What the hell?

So Johnny rides through what seems to be a bit “swamps of Dagobah”, finds the town where Blackheart is keeping Roxanne and, in a pretty well done, if a bit disjointed, couple of scenes, manages to defeat Blackheart. Then, Mephistopheles turns up and offers to take away Blaze’s curse. Johnny refuses, saying he will use his power as the Ghost Rider to fight evil and Mephistopheles himself. Hooray… anybody know what was up with Johnny continually pointing at Mephistopheles in that really weird way?

So, is Ghost Rider a good film? Well… there is too much stupid dialogue, too many bad characters and too many poor actors. The plot itself is pretty tight, there are no major plot holes or inconsistencies. Ghost Rider himself kicks ass and Peter Fonda and Sam Elliott are too likeable to hate but those are small things compared to the overwhelming mediocrity of the rest of the film. But, at the end of the day, Ghost Rider didn’t make he jump up out of my seat and yell at the screen. It’s not the usual anger inducing, rage inciting rubbish I usually see. Is it perfect? No. Is it good? Still, no. Is it just… not good? Yeah. that’s it. It’s not bad, it’s just not good, like brussel sprouts. It’s not the presence of a bad film, it’s the absence of a good one.

But what did YOU think about Ghost Rider? Was it on as cool as a skull on fire or was “The Nic Cage Effect” right on the money? Why not let us know in the comments below or on Twitter? Either way, I’m going to make “The Nic Cage Effect” a thing, mark my words!

About the author

Scott Meridew

1 Comment

  • Under the top should be a phrase! But Ghost Rider is terrible. It suffers from the corny child baiting antics that many contemporary super hero flicks do, as well as being generally lacking in both depth and stylistic merit. He’s one of my favourite characters too and thats why I have to actively loath this film. Cage is a legend but he’s not right for the part and what the F£$% was up with Blackheart being played by the bag filming weirdo from American Beauty?!?Unforgivable.