Not unlike an attractive, yet dull, twentysomething sporting a stylish haircut and a good body, Johnny Blaze’s flaming skulled alter ego seems to have mostly cruised by on looks alone. A quick glance at his early comic book history seems to confirm the fact that the character is merely an amazing tattoo design in search of a good story as numerous stories seem to have the possessed stunt rider hauling ass from any and all threats that pours itself out of the buttcrack of Hell itself – seriously, check it out, the majority of his covers involving him heroically hurtling as far away from danger as super-humanly possible.
The character’s comic book origins were born in that anything-goes period known as the 70’s, where along side Kung Fu, blaxplotation and woman’s lib, satanism seemed to be prime real estate to create new heroes to plonk alongside the classics like Captain America and Iron Man. Therefore Ghost Rider ended up being a vague southern gothic ripoff of the Faust legend that ended up being as repetitive as it was quirkily original.
Cruising on the momentum from the moderate success of the entertainingly mediocre Daredevil, writer/director Mark Steven Johnson forges ahead with the only other Marvel character that Sony owns for no other reason than the noughties were a frantic, hyperactive sprint to see how many Marvel characters could snag a big screen debut in under a decade. And guess what? He’s brought Nicolas Cage with him.
As a young man, Johnny Blaze works a father and son motorcycle stunt show for a travelling carnival and plans to elope with his childhood sweetheart Roxanne. However after he finds out his father is dying of cancer, he is approached by a mysterious man (Easy Rider’s Peter Fonda in a legitimately sweet bit of casting) who claims that he can heal Blaze’s sickly parent for the price of his immortal soul. Dumb Johnny immediately accepts only for his miraculously healed father to die performing in a stunt show the very next night and finds out that the strange man is actually Mephistopheles, the acting head honcho in Hell. Unbelievable. If you can’t trust a mysterious stranger who is actually the devil, who can you trust? Realising the enormity of what he has done, Blaze does the most honorable thing he can think off… dumping Roxanne without a word of explanation and running off to become a world famous stuntman loaded with cash and renown.
Years later Johnny has a chance meeting with Roxy who now happens to be a news reporter (yeah, it’s one of those kinds of movies) and attempts to rekindle their relationship but this is efficiently cockblocked by a returning Mephistopheles who claims Johnny’s soul in order to make him sort of a Dog The Bounty Hunter of the netherworld and commands him to not so kindly persuade his wayward son, Blackheart (a wildly overacting Wes Bentley, emoting entirely with his super serious eyebrows) to get his tushie back to Hell pronto. So at night in the presence of evil, Blaze becomes – in an orgy of the typical hysterical screaming that usual denotes a textbook Nic Cage performance – the flaming skulled, hellcycle riding, demonic superhero Ghost Rider. Can he shake this admittedly badass curse and rekindle his love for poor Roxy or will be be doomed to be Hell’s public servant forever?
Ghost Rider is one of those movies that functions purely because the world it’s set in and everyone in it simply defies any sort of conventional logic or common sense, presumably because writing scripts that aren’t stupid must be, like, totally hard work. Plot holes are casually ignored (Why can’t Mephistopheles simply take the power back when Blaze rebels Why are Blackheart’s elemental cronies so easy to defeat? Why is the subplot about Johnny being a suspect in dozens of murders utterly forgotten about?) and we are expected to except lazy and illogical exposition merely because it’s enimating from beneath the impressive moustache of Sam Elliot’s crusty gravedigger.
Forty-something, dark haired Cage plays young, blonde Johnny Blaze as a forty-something Nicolas Cage type, electing to portray the drawling stuntman less as a heroic outsider and more as an “off-putting weirdo” who is less a character and more a collection of quirks shaped like a man who eats jelly beans from a wine glass and guffaws at chimpanzee videos on YouTube like it’s 2005 (close, it’s actually 2007). An underappreciated Donal Logue as Blaze’s sidekick expresses continued exasperation with the character which will accurately mirror your own before the film ends, but miscast as Cage is, he has good chemistry with co-lead Eva Mendes (wasted in a standard girlfriend in peril role) and he is consistently entertaining except for a brief superhero-with-his-shirt-off scene where he’s sporting upsettingly shiny abs…
Mark Steven Johnson is obviously having a fun time with his superhero/horror/comedy/western and seems to be shooting for an American Werewolf In London/John Landis vibe (newsflash: not even John Landis can do John Landis anymore, what chance have YOU got, Johnson?) but only composer Christopher Young gets the balance right with a legitimately awesome score.
Fittingly, Ghost Rider comes through on it’s visuals – you’ve basically got your money’s worth from the Hellcycle alone – with it’s fully transformed lead character looking admittedly badass with trailer worthy money shots scattered everywhere like the seeds of a hyperactive gardener (the Rider throttling up the sheer side of a skyscraper is a particular corker) but if it’s substance you’re here for this is one rider whose tank is regrettably running on fumes.