Evil, rogue demons beware! The Devil himself is coming after you but he’s too old and too tired to do his own dirty work. In his stead he sends a man whose soul he has swindled and upon whom he has placed the curse of the power of the Ghost Rider. It grants that man the ability to be human by day and undead warrior by night, or whenever he’s in the dark, or the shadows, or wherever else deemed dramatically necessary to hunt you down and send you back where you came from.
As a living soul the Ghost Rider has emotions, making him just susceptible enough to the kinds of human weaknesses you creatures of the underworld love to exploit. But watch out for that undead side. He’ll kick butt, take names, and worst of all, show you up by looking a lot whole cooler than you with his flaming skull head, flaming sidekick motorcycle and flaming chain-whip. Yes, indeed, the cinematic incarnation of Ghost Rider, chock full of dazzling special effects, is enough to set any comic fanboy on his head with joygasmic glee. Fortunately there’s just enough in there to offer non-drooling fans a little something as well.
Johnny Blaze (Nicholas Cage) is a guy with a name befitting a comic character destined to become a vengeful, leather clad fighter with a fiery skull head. As the world’s most famous motorcycle stunt jumper (he can clear six whirling Huey helicopters in a single bound) he regularly defies death in front of his thronging tractor-pull fan base. During his dangerous career he has miraculously walked away from several fatal accidents. His seeming good luck is actually on account of the fact that the Devil (Peter Fonda) won’t let him die. When Johnny was a young lad he struck a Faustian sort of deal with ol’ Mephistopheles, trading his soul to save his father from dying of cancer. The Devil is just waiting for the right time to collect his end of the bargain.
Enter Blackheart (Wes Bentley), the Devil’s own son and a sort of upstart to the throne. In a bid to overthrow good ol’ Dad, Blackheart has gathered some of his demon buddies and gone in search of the Contract of San Venganza, a document binding the power of 1000 souls and capable of giving any who claims it the power of, well, 1000 souls. To put an end to the threat, the Devil calls in Johnny’s debt, turns him into Ghost Rider and sicks him on Blackheart. Really bad timing, given that Johnny has just begun to discover true joy in his life by reconnecting with the love of his youth, the sexy yet unexciting Roxanne (Eva Mendes). That annoying habit of turning into an undead warrior at night can really wreak havoc on your social life.
There’s a guilty pleasure aspect to Ghost Rider, but that’s the best it can offer to the average movie viewer. What it lacks in heart and depth it more than makes up for in special effects and outlandish action sequences. That’s all well and good for a comic book movie, but to cross over and offer non-comic fans something to really enjoy takes more than just copious amounts of pixel dust. Director and writer (and comic fanboy) Mark Steven Johnson has sharpened his skills somewhat since butchering Daredevil and Elektra, but he still hasn’t figured out how to breathe life into his characers the way Raimi did with Spider-Man.
Johnson’s storytelling leaves something to be desired as well. The pacing feels more like a comic book than a movie, jumping from one iconic image to the next with very few moments of substance. Stilted dialogue and trite one liners, the kind you would expect from a comic, are rampant and more often used to push the plot along than provide anything interesting to consider. It’s a shame too, since the characters have plenty of opportunity to be developed into something more than an excuse to have another fight scene.
The biggest surprise here is that Nicholas Cage is Ghost Rider's saving grace. He somehow manages to deliver even the most ridiculous lines perfectly, with dignity or humor as appropriate (a good thing too since he has a lot of them). Avoiding the pitfall of taking the character too seriously, Cage keeps the movie fresh for those not satisfied with watching his skull burst into flame. Along with Sam Elliott, who plays the mentor to the fledgling Ghost Rider, he keeps the movie from descending into a self-indulgent comic book movie nightmare.
Ghost Rider dodges a bullet by sticking to the task of carving out how Ghost Rider came to be, but I sense an unwarranted and unnecessary series of sequels on the horizon. Despite the movie’s painfully obvious open ending, I’m content to know that the story goes on after this film and I won’t feel cheated if I never see Ghost Rider on the screen again. As a one time trip, Ghost Rider decent eye-candy, a wild-ride popcorn flick that’s best left to stand alone. Here’s hoping Marvel lets him ride off into the sunset.