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Monday 19 February 2007

Movie Review of Ghost Rider

by Howard Waldrop & Lawrence Person

Directed by Mark Steven Johnson

Written by Mark Steven Johnson

Starring Nicolas Cage, Eva Mendes, Peter Fonda, Donal Logue, Wes Bentley, Sam Elliott, Matt Long, Raquel Alessi, and Brett Cullen

Both: Ghost Rider did manage to reach the one very low threshold of hope we had for it going in: That it would be better than The Wicker Man, Nicolas Cage's last film. And it is. But beyond that, Ghost Rider is, at best, a stunning mediocrity.

Howard Waldrop: When I heard there was going to be a Ghost Rider movie, I hoped it would be the old Ghost Rider, the Western night vigilante with the white hat, mask and cloak, famous first in the early '50s incarnation from Avon or St. John, with great Frazetta covers, tried first as a revival at Marvel. Then I heard Nicolas Cage will be in it, and I said no, it will be the later Marvel motorcycle version. I've been proved half-assed right.

As if to get the taste of The Wicker Man remake out of our minds, Cage has gone back to acting like he used to do. He's trapped here in a live action comic book which makes no daylight, and very little comic-book, sense. (That was inherent in doing the Ghost Rider comic as a movie from the git-go.)

Lawrence Person: I'm not sure I agree with Howard on Cage. Yes, he's much better here than in Wicker Man, but that's about it. He can be an effective actor with strong direction (see, for example, his wonderful turn in Raising Arizona, or the gusto with which he attacks the bad guy portions of Face/Off); here, he didn't get it. He's like the tofu of acting, taking on the characteristics of whatever he's working on, good or bad. He can be competent, but he never seems to elevate the material. Not that he's got a lot to work with here...

HW: This was a movie that probably looked very good at the script-stage. There are two prologues: one (narrated by Sam Elliot) set in the Old West giving the deep plot background; one set in Cage's modern teenage past that gives the Johnny Blaze character background. (Indeed, the most astonishing thing you have to swallow in this movie is that the pretty-boy teen actor (Matt Long) who leaves brown-eyes-crying-in the-rain grows up to be Nicolas Cage.

LP: Elliot is fine, but he essentially plays the same character (with the twist Howard mentions below) he played in The Big Lebowski.

HW: The Johnny Blaze character — the daredevil motorcyclist son of a daredevil motorcyclist — gets involved in a Deal-with-the-Devil (Peter Fonda) Ghost Rider saga. (The po-mo trope here is that the Ghost Rider cycle — "wheels on fire, rolling down the road" — is a direct descendent of the one Fonda rode in Easy Rider.)

LP: I don't want to rag too much on Peter Fonda as the Devil (and here so many of us thought it was Jane), outfitted in a black outfit, a skullcane, and a Robespierre-by-way-of-Ann-Richards bouffant. Both he and Cage underplay their parts a bit, which might have been the right choice in another movie. But this one is about a flaming skeleton in a leather jacket riding a demonic motorcycle. Understatement is not only wasted, but is somewhat counter-productive. But as much as I blame the director for Fonda's flat performance, I can't help but thinking how much more relish an actor like Alan Rickman would have brought to the role.

HW: There are eyeball-kicks aplenty in this movie (including exploding glass and an armadillo roasted by the passage of the Ghost Rider cycle) — there is the Son of the Devil (Wes Bentley) and his water-and-air elemental buddies (the third buddy, who must be dirt, disappears from the narrative without ever evidencing any dirt(earth)-moving abilities) — fallen angels all. Don't ask about the plot — the last of the line of original Ghost Riders skipped out on delivering the Pact of San Venganza (St.? Vengence?) to the Devil; the son wants to take Dad's place (don't all sons of the Devil have that Oedipal dream?), delivery of the pact which devolves to Johnny Blaze, and keeps him from making a date with his long lost love (Eva Mendes), last seen (in the form of Raquel Alessi) as brown-eyes-cryin'-in-the-rain, now a TV anchorwoman). She is of course glommed by the Son of the Devil as a bargaining chip...

LP: Next to the naked (and very lame) McGuffin of the Pact, the Son of Satan (AKA "Blackheart") and his buddies are clearly the most ill-conceived elements in the film. They act more like standard horror movie monsters (including a shock roar into the camera after materializing in a rain of brimstone) than fallen angels.

There seems to be no rhyme, reason, or limits (save that we don't see them during the day, until the climatic battle) on the powers they possess. A world where demonic entities can kill anyone, anytime, regardless of the state of their souls, lacks even the most basic metaphysical framework for a satisfying battle between Good and Evil. The examples of the form that work best postulate (or at least suggest) clearly ordered rules governing the interactions of Heaven, Hell and Earth, and usually demonic entities are only given power over mortals due to some transgression, either explicit ("Hey, let me play with this puzzle box that opens the gate to hell") or implicit (such as Regan speaking to "Captain Howdy" via the Ouija board in The Exorcist). Without knowledge of what constraints such supernatural entities work under, all the battles between them and Ghost Rider seem equally meaningless. And on the one occasion we are told a limit (Elliot's Living Infodump tells us they can't enter hallowed ground), it turns out not to be true, with Blackheart entering a church, which is a particularly shoddy example of lazy writing. Equally stupid is that having the water elemental be the second-to-last baddy dispatched means that there has to be a marshy slough of despond right outside San Venganza, despite it being in the middle of the Southwestern desert.

HW: I'm not destroying any Big Surprise here: Sam Elliot, a kindly gravedigger, was the last Ghost Rider, 150 years before, who skipped out on the Devil. He's the Ghost Rider I wanted to see (sans cloak and mask but with a nice fiery horse) and the scene of the motorcycle-and-Western Ghost Riders, wheels and hooves, skullhead and horse-nostrils afire are the equivalent of the scene where Elvis (in his jumpsuit) and JFK (in his wheelchair), come around the corridor end going after the Mummy in Bubba Ho-Tep. (I believe Lawrence's phrase re: Ghost Rider is "that scene has lots of cheesy grandeur, and Oh! That Ghost Rider was one-half the movie Bubba Ho-Tep was.") It impressed me because it was as close as I was going to get to the movie I wanted to see...

The Ghost Rider (himself) effects are fine (what else is new in CGI?), the other effects less so, especially the respective demises of the fallen angel buddies and normal crooks. The collateral damage is choice (especially the charred armadillo and all the car alarms going off as windows explode...)

There are attempts by the screenwriter (who also adapted and directed) to add some not-usual-comic-book-movie snap to the thing. (The audience I was with really seemed to enjoy Cage's attempt to explain to Mendes why he stood her up on the date — we've seen it, but he more he talks, the deeper he gets. "You didn't meet me because you had a deal with the Devil?")

Both: There's a scene where a fat Goth-y girl (played by an actress with the unlikely name of Rebel Wilson) who was rescued by Ghost Rider from a mugger is describing it on live TV: "and, you know, the guy's head was on fire. It was an extreme look, but it really worked for him."

LP: The only two other real laughs I had were when a tipsy, stood-up Mendes asks the waiter: "I'm pretty, aren't I?" and he shrugs and goes "Eh," and earlier when Cage told his long suffering crew chief (Donal Logue) that he'd taken his advice about removing the cars from his jump, only to have the stadium roof open up and the announcer reveal that he was going to jump six Blackhawk helicopters with blades in full rotation. Other than that, the script was a pedestrian, by-the-numbers affair that left few clichés unturned.

HW: This is a step up from Daredevil (what isn't?), but still no cigar in the comic-book movie sweepstakes. There are two or three swell scenes, some decent attempts at characterization, a clip from Curse of the Demon, lots of homages, Cage acting again, rather than taking the script out for a walk, and, of course, Sam Elliot, who seems to be getting younger the longer he works. I can't really recommend this, unless you want to see the air go back into Cage's career, or are one of those people who can live by CGI alone...

LP: Unless you're a fan of the comic book, or think a flaming skeleton on a motorcycle is really cool, there's no reason to see Ghost Rider. Then again, you'd be hard-pressed to find a single boy between the ages of 10 and 16 who doesn't think a flaming skeleton on a motorcycle is really cool. (Indeed, about the only way you could make it more totally awesome for that demographic is to have a flaming T-Rex on a motorcycle, wielding a sword and shooting lightning bolts out of its eyes. And if any artist who's reading this is capable of doing a nice four-color rendition of that, please get in touch so we can make a fortune in the T-shirt-and-poster business...) And they'll enjoy it fine. For everyone else, this is a mediocre action film.

Both: The film of course uses "Ghost Riders in the Sky" over the closing credits, but it's a horrible, crappy version. Tex Ritter's, Vaughn Monroe's, or The Sons of the Pioneers version would have been more in keeping with the mood of the movie.

LP: There are two things you can do with superhero comic book-based material: You can try to elevate it to a real drama (see Sam Rami's Spider-Man, or the first two X-Men films), or you can embrace the inherent cheesiness of the premise and go for it whole-hog and come roaring out the other side. In treating it like just another mediocre American action film, Johnson's fallen between two stools. Given the source material, they might have been better served by going for a non-stop exploitation fight fest of Ghost Rider wrecking vengeance on the criminal world rather than a pedestrian origin story.

Ironically, two of the trailers I saw before the film showed both ends of the aforementioned spectrum: Richard Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino's Grindhouse seems to embrace its sleazeoid potentialities with unrestrained gusto. (Hookers with machineguns in their peg legs? I am so there.) By contrast, 300 (based on Frank Miller's graphic novel about the Battle of Thermopylae) looks like director Zack Snyder was really trying to make The Greatest Ancient War Film Ever Made (or, at the very least, the most beautiful). Judging from the trailers (always dangerous), each of them looks a lot more interesting than Ghost Rider.

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