Saturday, February 17, 2007

REVIEW: Ghost Rider

I'm in a position to garauntee few things in my life, but I feel comfortable garaunteeing you this: If you ever find yourself on the recieving end of a comic book devotee arguing the serious literary/cultural import of the medium, the first example they raise will never, ever be Ghost Rider. This is not meant as a slam to the eponymous Mssrs. Blaze, Ketch, Kale, Zarathos, etc; merely an admission of essential truth. While it's true that there are characters like Superman who's popularity can be substantially attributed to his embodiment of Joseph Campbell's "heroic ideal" stretching all the way back through Christ, Arthur, Hercules, Moses and Gilgamesh; it is also true that there are characters like Ghost Rider... who can attribute his popularity to the fact that he rides a hell-spawned enchanted motorcycle and has a flaming skull for a head.

Don't misunderstand - I'm not giving the character a hard time here, just laying things on the table: As superheroes go, Ghost Rider isn't running in the same "tier" as Bruce Wayne or Peter Parker. He's a singularly nifty-looking character with cool powers and a supernatural origin that ties him to some of the more consistently-nifty parts of the Marvel Universe, and that's really more than enough. In it's best moments, the source-material affected the sheen of a fun, flashy, somewhat-cheesy horror/action B-movie, so it's appropriate that that's the form it has arrived in on the big screen.

Nicholas Cage finally gets a chance to get his well-publicized desire to play a superhero out of his system for awhile as Johnny Blaze, a motorcycle-stunt daredevil who's ability to cheat death may be the result of a hidden past: As a teenager, he sold his soul to Mephistopholes (Peter Fonda) to cure his father of cancer. As is often the case in these matters, Blaze wound up with the short end of the stick and is now cursed to a double-life as Ghost Rider, a skeletal being of "the fire element" charged to hunt down and collect on debts owed to The Devil (unlike in the comics, Fonda's Mephistopholes seems to be Satan himself) and also posessed of a vigilante streak that compells him to dole out ironic punishments on sinners and lawbreakers.

The main arc of the film follows Blaze's first "official" duty as the hot-headed warrior: Blackheart, (Wes Bentley,) the impatiently power-mad son of The Devil - attention genre filmmakers: can we PLEASE call a moratorium on this particular plotline? - is on Earth seeking a magic scroll which, if obtained, will let him claim the sold-souls of an entire blighted Cowboy-era town; a starting-point to establish his own franchise of Hell. At his side are a trio of Fallen Angels embodying (respectively) the elements of Wind, Water and Earth ("fire," presumably, belongs to the guy who's head is engulfed in it.) Standing in his way is Ghost Rider.

Occupying space somewhere in the middle of the modern superhero movie pantheon - it's certainly doesn't approach the majesty of "Spider-Man," "Superman Returns" or "Batman Begins" but is infinitely-superior to rancid, soulless entries like "X-Men 3" or "Fantastic Four" - "Ghost Rider" really shouldn't work as well as it does. Oh, it's riddled with issues, to be sure: Bently's mincing, over-the-top turn as Blackheart makes for a weak main baddie, the hero seems occasionally too powerful (with powers too vaugely-defined) to be in any suspense and love-interest Eva Mendes... sorry, she's still not much of an actress.

And yet it works, or at least it worked for me, in the same charming vein as those mid-80s action/horror/scifi hybrid flicks you can still occasionally catch at 3am on TBS ("Trancers" and "I Come In Peace" spring to mind,) at times resembling nothing so much as the finest movie Golan Globus never made.

A big reason for that is writer/director Mark Steven Johnson, late of "Daredevil" (another lesser Marvel movie that "GR" is easily superior to.) Oh, he still has his flaws; chiefly an obvious love for the distinctly "comic-bookish" sort of extensive, convoluted background mythology that eventually has the film swimming in so many demons, prophecies and magic talismans as to become confounding. But he "gets" the material where it counts, and under his direction the film jumps from passable to downright joyous whenever Ghost Rider is doing his thing onscreen. He never makes the error of trying to "hide" or "downplay" how nutty the title character looks or acts, and the results are a series of "money" moments (the unquestionable highlight being GR's applause-worthy confrontation with a police helicopter) that literally seem to have been ripped straight from the pages of the comics in the best sense possible. All told, it's kind of odd to consider that a Marvel hero as out-there looking as Ghost Rider should show up onscreen looking more "like himself" than anyone in "Daredevil" or 80% of the X-Men, but thats the business for you.

But the main "quality infusion" comes directly from Cage, who's passion for the material was never in doubt but who let's the onscreen manifestation of such emerge in entirely unexpected ways. Cage's strength as the onetime unlikeliest of action heroes is mixing his solid grasp of leading-man heroics with the half-mad quirks of a character actor, and he's in rare form as the erratic, oddball Johnny Blaze. Settling into a characterization that owes more than a little to his Elvis-affected turn in "Wild At Heart" (to say nothing of "Vampire's Kiss,") he has Blaze's eccentricity cranked up to levels not seen in the hero of a genre film since Jeff Goldblum in "The Fly." A less-imaginative (or, if you like, more-conventional) characterization might be expected to have the human side of Ghost Rider knocking back Jim Bean to the strains of Johnny Cash; Cage has him wolfing down martini glasses full of jellybeans, tuning up his bikes to The Carpenters and obsessing over funny monkey videos (congratulations, kung-fu monkey from YouTube, you made it to the big screen!) The looks glimpsed on Cage's face just before bursting into GR's flames are priceless reminders of why he's certainly valuable enough of a talent to be forgiven the occasional "Wicker Man" here and there.

"Ghost Rider" is a B-movie with A-list talent and top-flight FX, which I'd offer is the perfect fit for the angle on the character it's taking, tone-wise (it seems much more reminiscient of the zanier 70s/80s incarnation of the character than it's "edgier" upgrade in the early 90s.) In the end, it's just a whole lot of fun, in the very specific way that only an action movie about a magical motorcyclist with a flaming skull-head fighting element-powered demons can be. No one's going to confuse it with "Spider-Man 3" in a few months, sure, but then Ghost Rider is generally not confused for Spider-Man to begin with. For what it's worth, I had a ball, and a few months from now I'll be more than happy to seat it's DVD alongside it's cheesy, good-natured kindred spirits (it'd look nice next to "Highlander," methinks.)