Friday, February 16, 2007

Ghost Rider

GHOST RIDER (Mark Steven Johnson, 2007)

If there's one lesson to be learned from GHOST RIDER, it's that a lawyer should first examine any contract presented to you. If there's a second lesson to be learned, it's that laughing through a bad film can ease the sting of wasted time and money.

Following in his father's footsteps, daredevil Johnny Blaze (Nicolas Cage) makes a living jumping motorcycles over impossible lengths. One stunt calls for him to leap six helicopters lined up the distance of a football field. No doubt about it, Johnny's the best there is and one of the luckiest too. When a jump ends with him falling on his head, he gets up without a scratch, even though his crew removes his helmet and slaps his face rather than stabilizing his neck after the nasty tumble.

Johnny's good fortune isn't what it appears to be, though. As a teen he made a deal with Mephistopheles (Peter Fonda) that cost him his soul in return for curing his father's cancer. (He gets a cruel reminder that the devil is in the details.) Under the dark lord's watch, Johnny can't get hurt before fulfilling his end of the bargain. His destiny is to be the devil's bounty hunter known as Ghost Rider. In the presence of evil, Johnny changes from flesh and blood to a flaming skeleton.

As luck would have it, Mephistopheles comes to collect the same night Johnny is to be reunited with childhood sweetheart Roxanne Simpson (Eva Mendes). The devil's son Blackheart (Wes Bentley) is in search of a long lost contract that could give him the power to unseat his father. Ghost Rider is commanded to stop Blackheart. At least it's a reasonable excuse for standing up Roxanne, not that she's likely to buy Johnny's story.

Based on the Marvel character, GHOST RIDER is a comic fan's celluloid nightmare. Jokey to a fault and weighty as newsprint, it lives down to the negative attributes attached to the comic book film tag. The performances and dialogue are riotously funny in the manner of bad English dubs of Asian martial arts films. Fonda is in pure hambone mode while Bentley camps it up like a high school drama club member making a home video with friends. Mendes plays the world's most unconvincing TV news reporter. Writer-director Mark Steven Johnson never decides if she's supposed to be a local or out-of-towner, so maybe that explains her confusion in the role.

And then there's Cage. Wearing a bad hairpiece and channelling Elvis, his Johnny lives up to the actor's reputation of playing eccentrics. (Alas, he doesn't don a bear suit.) He sips yellow and red jelly beans from a martini glass, unwinds to the smooth sounds of The Carpenters, and loves watching monkey videos. The unintended hilarity of GHOST RIDER and THE WICKER MAN are quite the dubious one-two combination for Cage. He's all wrong for the part--too old and too quirky--which is what makes him absolutely perfect if one's to enjoy this for all of its badness.

As bad as the performers are, Johnson ought to shoulder the bulk of GHOST RIDER'S failings. The film asks if one youthful mistake should determine the rest of a person's life, yet the idea gets lost in the scattershot plot. Johnson draws stick figure characters in single, disconnected panels where the material demands richly sketched individuals linked through multiple frames and pages.

Sam Elliott's grizzled opening narration over a western landscape in GHOST RIDER reminds viewers of another very funny movie about an unlikely hero. The problem for GHOST RIDER is that only THE BIG LEBOWSKI was a comedy.

Grade: D+

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