There’s a terrific gag in the old Bob Hope picture Son of Paleface (1952) that begins with Bob driving through the desert when two buzzards swoop down and roost on the back of his car, sizing up their prospective luncheon. When they appear there again in a later scene, Bob shoos them away, saying, “Beat it or you’re gonna make the whole thing unbelievable.” I bring this up for the benefit of certain reviewers who have criticized Ghost Rider on the basis of its lack of believability and logic, and the fact that its silly pyrotechnics submerge the “human elements.”
Let’s get this into some kind of perspective, folks: This is Ghost Rider, and it’s adapted from a cheesy series of Marvel comic books. It’s about “Satan’s bounty hunter,” who turns into a flaming skeleton and rides around on a flaming motorcycle. At what point does believability or the human element enter into this? The screenplay is by Mark Steven Johnson—the fellow responsible for Daredevil (2003) and Elektra (2005). This affords you a clue that maybe you shouldn’t be expecting Henrik Ibsen.
Now, I’m not saying Ghost Rider is a good movie. But it’s not good in an often hugely entertaining way—assuming, of course, that you’re ready to accept the idea of the main character (Nicolas Cage) and the whole business of Mephistopheles (Peter Fonda) squaring off against Mephistopheles Jr. (Wes Bentley, The Four Feathers). If you’re not ready to do that, then go see something else (and there’s no shortage of better movies playing currently). Assuming for the moment that you’re in the former category, the story follows the adventures of Johnny Blaze—a kind of fantasticated Evel Knievel, who does physically impossible stunts on a motorcycle, and has attained the kind of rabid following usually associated with the better known NASCAR drivers.
Johnny, alas, made a pact with Mephistopheles that causes him to turn into one of the Dark Master’s “ghost riders.” These are gents with flaming skull heads and skeletal hands (whether the rest of them is ablaze is unrecorded, since they apparently wear asbestos clothing), who go after other folks who ran out on old Scratch after promising their souls to him. No, it doesn’t make much sense, but that’s OK, because it gets worse. You see, Johnny also turns into alter ego flambé at night (the effect looks better) “in the presence of evil,” during which time he dispatches evildoers with his “penance stare.” By telling them to look into his eyes (despite the fact that he has eyes about as much as Little Orphan Annie does), he kills them off by making them experience their victims’ pain. This makes him Satan’s little crime fighter as well. Who knew Lucifer wanted to take a bite out of crime?
Anyway, Mephistopheles has a problem he wants Johnny to handle. Seems he has a wayward son (what did he expect?) who wants to overthrow dad by obtaining a scroll that would allow him to collect a thousand or so extremely naughty souls and give him limitless power. Johnny can get out of his pact if he can prevent this. That’s pretty much the story.
On the genuine plus side, some of the visuals are striking and occasionally rise to a kind of surreal beauty, as when Johnny crosses over into the ruins of the town where the evil souls once lived. On the genuine negative side, there’s a romance between Johnny and busty TV reporter Roxanne Simpson (Eva Mendes, Hitch) that makes the one between Bruce Wayne and Vicki Vale in Batman (1989) look like one of the great love stories of our time. But let’s face it, the appeal lies in the preposterous nature of all this—and in Cage’s truly bizarre performance.
As Johnny, Cage sticks fairly closely to his usual laconic human-basset hound approach—only with more Americanus Napus Rosa twang to his voice than usual. There are even times when he moves and reacts so slowly that he seems to transcend time itself. However, he punctuates these moments with overacting on a scale that shames his hysterical death scene (“My legs! My legs! You bitches!”) in last year’s The Wicker Man. The effect is … well, pretty damn strange.
Intentional? Just possibly—certainly the bit where he imitates the skull from Disney’s 1929 The Skeleton Dance (seen earlier on TV in the movie) is meant to be funny. The rest at least feels like the results of an actor realizing the impossibility of the role and having fun with it. In a film where Peter Fonda as the devil pauses to say, “Nice bike,” to his henchman, it’s hard not to assume a level of intentional camp. Whatever the case, it’s agreeably silly stuff—and as someone pointed out to me regarding the Ghost Rider-Mephistopheles showdown, it’s the only chance you’re ever likely to have to see Ghost Rider take on Captain America. Rated PG-13 for horror violence and disturbing images.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke