ghost rider (2007)

24 03 2007

Nicolas Cage / Eva Mendes / Sam Elliott
Mark Steven Johnson (dir)

This is the sort of film where someone in a Matrix-style long coat stands in a darkened church staring broodingly at the candles, and when challenged by the priest, replies “Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. I’ve sinned a lot!” and turns into a demon. Says it all really.

Ghost Rider isn’t bad, like, just not great. The big draw is the visuals, and it would be pretty hard to cock up iconography as strong as a leather-clad avenger with a flaming skull for a head. Whether riding his fearsome hell cycle up the side of a skyscraper, lassoing a helicopter with a fiery chain (!) or just standing there doing that Elvis open-fisted pointing thing, the Ghost Rider himself never looks less than dead cool. And if that image doesn’t sound like your cup of jellybeans, then, hell, Music and Lyrics is just starting in the next screen, you big girl’s blouse.

Just kidding. It’s pushing it to hang a whole feature just on how cool the lead looks, so hey, at least this film is pretty short. The Ghost Rider is the devil’s bounty hunter by night, stunt cyclist Johnny Blaze by day. In between jumping over helicopters Blaze flirts with childhood sweetheart Roxy, gets advice on stopping the devil’s son from a mysterious gravedigger, and has a couple of slightly dull paggers. And that’s about it.

It’s all quite charming, if not compelling, suffering from such a workmanlike, origin-of-a-superhero tick-box plot: guy gets superpowers, guy tests superpowers, guy reveals superpowers to sceptical girlfriend, guy has showdown with police that has everyone convinced he’s bad (except girlfriend), guy has it all explained by mentor figure, guy’s girlfriend gets kidnapped, guy has big showdown with assorted baddies over some kind of ultimate weapon, guy sets up sequel.

The Ghost Rider even takes on a purse-snatcher, for god’s sake.

That’s not to say this film is wholly without imagination: there’s plenty of nice little touches around the edges, mostly in the performances. Mendes, Cage and Elliott are all down with the silliness, and seem happy to just relax and have fun, and they’re all fun to spend time with.

An unexpectedly lean Cage is astonishingly restrained – I expected him to be bouncing off the scenery with his head on fire, trying to do the role without special effects. Instead there’s lots of little character beats like listening to The Carpenters and casually mentioning that he’s thinking of becoming a motorcycle cop.

Elliott is perfectly cast to lend proceedings a bit of gravitas, and nicely anchors the urban/Western/Texan gothic setting. Mendes is luminous but has nothing to do, except for a nice bit of comedy in a restaurant.

The villains are less successful: Peter Fonda is a casting coup but would probably be more menacing without the distracting CGI inserts (see DeNiro’s Louis Cyphre in Angel Heart), while his devilish son Blackheart, played by Wes Bentley, is just laughably lame. Blackheart’s goons, a demon for each element, each have an OK signature CGI trick and might get by in a Marilyn Manson video, but they’re absolutely rubbish in a scrap.

The fights should have involved more running each other over with lorries and less interminable scenes of two CGI demons screaming at each other. Let’s face it, the smoky, wraith-like CGI demons peddled these days lack the physicality, the menace, the downright implacable sinisterness of Harryhausen’s stop-motion skeletons, no matter how many times they come snarling and roaring right up close to the screen, woooohhh, scary!

So a bit more depth in the Ghost Rider/Johny Blaze character would have been good, more of a Jekyll-and-Hyde thing, but hidden depths are probably a bit too much to ask for in a film so shallow. ‘Nice flaming skull’ really says it all.

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