Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Ghost Rider

The Marvel Comics supernatural character arrives on the cinema screen with decidedly mixed results, but the film's shortcomings don't keep it from being a reasonably entertaining ride.

Motorcycle stunt rider Johnny Blaze sells his soul to Mephistopheles in exchange for his father being cured of cancer. True to the deal, Mephistopheles cures Johnny's father, but allows him to die during a stunt. A distraught Johnny leaves the carnival and his girlfriend, Roxanne, behind. Many years later, Blaze is now a superstar stunt rider and finds himself reunited with Roxanne, only to have Mephistopheles return to hold him to his side of the become the Devil's bounty hunter.

Writer/director Mark Steven Johnson has a good understanding of the character's history and various incarnations, and pays homage to all of them, but as was true of his earlier comic book adaptation, Daredevil, the film's weaknesses are a formulaic plot and a directorial style that makes it seem like a television movie no matter how big the action and effects scenes are. However, unlike Daredevil, this film doesn't take itself too seriously, and as a result it has some good entertainment value as a supernatural action film. There are visual gags galore, but the film never falls into being deliberately campy.

The visual effects are excellent, and the first transformation of Blaze into Ghost Rider is simply awesome. Colorful cinematography by Russell Boyd (Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World) and John Wheeler (The Craic) brings the comic book world to vivid life. Production designer Kirk M. Petruccelli (Lara Croft: Tomb Raider) recreates Texas in Australia, and at times there's a classic western feel to the film, especially toward the end. The score by Christopher Young (Hellraiser, The Grudge) is solid enough, but the best music in the film is the cover of "Ghost Riders in the Sky" by Australian band Spiderbait that plays over the end titles.

Nicolas Cage is always entertaining when he plays a laconic rebel, and that holds true here. His Elvis by way of Evel Knievel performance is fun to watch, and his lines are delivered deadpan with perfect timing. Sam Elliott is excellent as a mysterious cemetery caretaker who may know more about the Ghost Rider than he lets on, and turns his minor character into the most interesting one in the film. In an inspired bit of casting, Peter Fonda is appropriately creepy as Mephistopheles. Eva Mendes is easy on the eyes as Roxanne and does her best with the stock girlfriend in danger character. Donal Logue has some amusing scenes as Blaze's crew chief, Mack. Wes Bentley, however, delivers a weak performance as Blackheart, Mephistopheles' son and Ghost Rider's opponent, that's straight out of Stock Villain 101 (note to actors: tilting your head down and to the side to look menacing really just looks silly). In a very small role, Rebel Wilson is hilariously perfect as a gothy young woman who tries to explain what Ghost Rider looks like to Roxanne, who's now a news reporter.

If you're looking for an eye candy supernatural action film, Ghost Rider certainly succeeds on that level. It's not one of the great comic book adaptations, but it's not one of the truly bad ones, either. I enjoyed it on the level that it was intended and left the cinema with a smile on my face.