Some may say Johnny has it all: A pretty girlfriend, reasonably good looks, and a steady job as a carnival performer. Johnny is fifty percent of a stupendous stunt bike duo. Every night, he and his father provide cheap thrills, under the big top, for adoring fans. Unfortunately, Johnny’s father is very ill. In his grief stricken state, Johnny does what any rational thinking man would do and sells his soul to the Devil, in exchange for his father’s health. The Devil, who is a bit of a trickster, grants his end of the bargain, but immediately after doing so, takes Johnny’s father’s life, in a fiery mishap. Years later, the Devil comes back to collect on his end of the bargain. Johnny Blaze is now a damned soul cursed to ride the earth and collect on the Devil’s deals. He is the “Ghost Rider.”
Ghost Rider is brought to us by director Mark Steven Johnson who is responsible for such “classics” as Jack Frost (1998). There is a clear theme in Johnson’s work, of over the top performances and silly scripts. Johnson first worked on a Marvel screen adaptation with 2003’s Daredevil. He did such a fantastic job of pissing fans of the comic off that Marvel brought him back to write and direct their 2007 film, Ghost Rider, and do it all over again. Somewhere, Satan was laughing. As it turns out, lightning struck twice and Johnson managed to make another forgettable, critically-panned adaptation. Fans, of course, revolted.
The film is full of cheesy dialogue. Johnson’s script is just dripping with it. It’s chalk full of awesomely bad one-liners, but not the kind that a viewer would really want to quote. Marvel finally got the hint and brought on a new team to write and direct the impending sequel, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance - opening tomorrow. I am curious to see what Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor – the writing team responsible for Jonah Hex and the directors of Crank, Crank 2 and Gamer – can bring to the table as a directing duo, but I’m not holding my breath.
Like much of the superhero fodder of recent years, Ghost Rider features liberal use of green screen effects, digitally-enhanced action sequences, and an abundance of CGI. The result is cartoonish nonsense that looks like it belongs in the deleted scenes of a Harry Potter movie. The scenes where Johnny Blaze’s head catches on fire are particularly bad. These scenes don’t even have the faintest hint of being anything more than drawn in during the editing process. It actually felt like an insult to the viewer’s intelligence. It’s as if the effects team just thought “maybe the audience won’t notice that we just drew half of the movie, rather than opting for the use of practical effects.” The film would have been better off sinking a mere fraction of the budget in to an animated film that closely followed the exploits of Johnny Blaze in the comic. Fans of the comic would have been happier and Nicolas Cage would have one fewer strike against him. The fact that Ghost Rider had the budget to turn out some wow-inducing effects and clearly didn’t do so makes me wonder exactly where the estimated $110 million went.
With an estimated budget of $75 million, I am curious to see if a lower budget proves to the detriment of the follow up effort. However, budget serves as no excuse. Superior films have been made on budgets of $500k. So, I have very little sympathy for those who squander multi-million dollar budgets to make multi-million dollars heaps of trash.
The casting of Nicolas Cage proved an interesting choice. I like Cage, but even I couldn’t give him a pass on this one. His use of silly facial expressions and his chronic desire to overact really helped to seal Ghost Rider’s fate as a nonsensical and critically panned waste of the movie-going public’s time. I don’t credit Nicolas Cage with all of the blame, as Johnson has failed to inspire great performances from really anyone under his direction. But, I think that in the hands of a more capable actor, the titular character may have been able to induce fewer audience groans and a slightly more believable performance. Nic Cage’s drawl is of special interest to me. We find it disappearing and reappearing throughout the film. It’s kind of like a guessing game as to when it will reappear. The rest of the cast turned in lackluster but passable performances. It’s Cage’s performance that really stands out as unforgettably bad.
On the plus side, Ghost Rider is fun to watch, if you like to sit and heckle in the style of Mystery Science Theater 3000. There is certainly no shortage of material for the critic inside all of us to point out and chuckle at.