Ghost Rider

Director    Mark Steven Johnson
Starring    Nicolas Cage, Eva Mendes, Peter Fonda, Wes Bentley, Donal Logue
Release    February 16th (US) March 2nd (UK)    Certificate 12A
3 stars


12th March 2007

"Why doesn't the water put out his flames?"

For a film about a man who becomes the Devil's own bounty hunter, complete with a flaming skull for a head and a pimped out motorbike, it's not perhaps the most pertinent question for the girlfriend to ask, but ask she did. The answer is because Ghost Rider is a comic-book movie, and comic-book movies don't always have to make a lot of sense. Sure, you've got your Sin Cities and your Batman Begins and all manner of dark and broody adaptations; it would seem that to succeed and gain critical acclaim these days, a comic-book movie needs to be shady, sinister and edgy. But then there's the much-maligned flipside of the coin; the bright, colourful, cartoonish flicks that perhaps reminds those with inkier thumbs than the rest of us that comics are primarily intended for kids. Fantastic Four was one such movie and it got torn a new corn chute on release, and Ghost Rider has unfairly received a similar response upon release in the US.

Johnny Blaze (Cage) is a motorcycle stuntman who finds himself cursing the Satanic smallprint when he sells his soul to Mephistopheles (Fonda) in exchange for his father's health. When the big D calls on Johnny to honour his deal, he reveals that Blaze is to act as his soul-collecting bounty hunter, a job that comes with a cool-looking flaming skull alter-ego and a shiny new motorbike. Naturally this puts a dent in Johnny's burgeoning romance with childhood sweetheart Roxanne (Mendes) and when the Devil's son Blackheart (Wes Bentley) makes an appearance in the land of the living, Johnny can pretty much strike off 'getting laid' from his to-do list.

Most comic-book properties are a hard sell to your average moviegoer, but Ghost Rider is smart enough to play its Joker card fairly early on - it's a patently ridiculous movie, and it knows it. There's just no way anyone was ever going to take a shit-kicking skeleton in a leather jacket seriously unless tongue was planted firmly in cheek. Thankfully, director Mark Steven Johnson learned a few things about unearned pretension on Daredevil, so Ghost Rider is packed full of cheeky winks and nods to the audience to make sure they're in on the joke. The fight scenes are big, dumb and loud, the dialogue straight from the pages of the comic and the romance angle is poorly implemented and predictable through and through - in other words, it's forgettable yet entertaining nonsense that's distracting enough to make you forget the real world for an hour and a half.

Cage is a die-hard fan of the comic (his Ghost Rider tattoo had to be removed with make-up before shooting) and plays the lead role with a manic enthusiasm, seesawing dangerously between all-out insanity and manly comic-book posturing. The character of Johnny is paper-thin in more ways than one, but Cage at least gives him a few minor character quirks to make him more interesting, such as drinking jelly beans out of a wine glass and listening to the Carpenters before stunts. When night falls and Blaze's alter-ego comes out to play, Cage takes a back seat to some excellent CG fire effects; when Ghost Rider is ablaze and on the back of his chopper, only a true misery guts could say it's not a sight to behold. With his gravelly voice and his flaming chains, he's undoubtedly one of the biggest badasses in recent comic-book movie history.

It's just a shame we don't get to see him for a good 45 minutes. Mendes may look pretty in her role as love interest cum news reporter (calling April O'Neill) but she's ultimately a distraction. Bentley proves to be as miscast as you might have thought as the Devil's firstborn, although it's not down to his over-acting or woefully bad delivery, rather the difficulty you'll have in accepting the plastic bag-obsessed twerp from American Beauty as the son of Satan. Sam Elliot makes a brief appearance as the Caretaker, although it's more for the fans as he's limited to only one cool scene and then skulks off the screen, never to be seen again. Make no mistake, this is the Ghost Rider show, and the movie sags every time he's off screen, flaming skull or dodgy wig, it matters not.

So, if you can stomach a movie that's designed from the ground up to sell popcorn, then you should have a blast. Ignore the cheesy dialogue, the cardboard cut-out villains and the atrociously OTT acting and just enjoy a good old-fashioned tale of heroes and villains the way the comic-books used to tell 'em. If you have to ask why water doesn't put out Ghost Rider's flames, then you're probably watching the wrong movie.

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