Stunt rider Johnny Blaze (Cage) sold his soul to Mephistopheles (Fonda) as a young man. When the demon Blackheart (Bentley) comes to Earth, the devil forces Blaze to become the Ghost Rider, a bike-riding Spirit Of Vengeance, in order to stop him.
When a film gets delayed by a few months, it makes people a little cynical, no matter how unfairly, about its quality. When a movie is delayed by almost a year, like Mark Steven Johnson’s Ghost Rider, even the most optimistic of souls tends to stay upwind of it, wary of the stagnant stench of failure. Johnson’s been down the Marvel Comics movie road before, of course, with the underrated Daredevil. But far from being the disaster that many were expecting, Ghost Rider is actually an enjoyable affair and, given that its hero comes from hell’s scorching bumcrack, funnier and lighter than you might expect.
Much of the credit for this should go to the movie’s star. Nicolas Cage has flirted with superhero projects before, but as a lifelong Ghost Rider fan this was the one he really wanted, and he’s had enormous fun with it. In two transformation scenes that tip Blaze over the edge into full, cackling, bulging-eyed B-movie mania, it’s a role that evokes the full-blooded ‘anything goes’ approach of early Cage. Elsewhere, he invests Blaze with amusing foibles — swigging jellybeans from a Martini glass; laughing his nuts off at a tape of chimpanzees practising karate — and a sense of playful impetuosity that lends his romance with ex-flame Roxanne (Eva Mendes, sweet if sidelined) genuine charm.
But A-lister aside, the film is called Ghost Rider, and it’s being sold on the promise of a bloke with his face on fire, riding a motorbike so powerful it would give Carl Fogarty the willies. And while it takes a good hour for the Rider to arrive, he doesn’t disappoint. Although his motivation is shaky (he works for the devil but punishes evildoers), the character is an uncompromising badass. He’s a hero of few words, but immense power, part-Terminator, part-Man With No Name (like Clint in The Good, The Bad And The Ugly, the Rider spends much of the movie assembling his costume). Johnson and his FX team have nailed the look of the character, too; it’s a stunning effect, rewriting the book on CG fire.
It’s a good thing that the lead character is so strong, because the movie’s weak link is its villains. Peter Fonda’s smooth, big-haired devil gets a pass, but Wes Bentley, as main nemesis Blackheart, ain’t so lucky. True, he gets saddled with some of the movie’s more on-the-nose dialogue, but unlike Cage and Mendes, he just doesn’t have the knack for delivery, instead choosing to overact quite horribly. Meanwhile, his elemental demon minions/Armani models are so ineffectual that their showdowns with the Rider puff into anti-climax. It’s telling that the movie’s best action sequence — a frantic chase as the Ghost Rider leads the police force a merry dance along bridges, under water, down dark alleyways and up the side of a skyscraper — is virtually villain-free, as are all the best scenes.
For a movie made by a lifelong fan, it all seems a little impersonal at first, but soon it becomes clear Johnson has unapologetically set out to make a loud, living comic book, set in a world where lovers meet by a big oak tree and people say things like, “I’m going to go where the road takes me,” with a straight face. While the end product may not be to everyone’s taste, you can’t say that he hasn’t hit what he was aiming at.
A blockbuster that offers enough quirky pleasures to feel fresh and unpredictable.