12A • 110 mins • OUT NOW!
Director: Mark Steven Johnson
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Eva Mendes, Peter Fonda, Wes Bentley, Sam Elliott, Donal Logue
When Daredevil stumbled onto our screens in 2003, it was far from perfect, but still managed to be a likeable, punchy, underdog stab at faithfully shoving the character up on screen. And writer/director Mark Steven Johnson could attribute many of its faults to studio tinkering – backed up by a solid director’s cut on DVD two years later. By Johnson’s own admission, Ghost Rider faced no such executive meddling, so the blame for the film’s problems falls squarely on him.
And they are legion. At no point is Ghost Rider able to approach the same thematic depth of Marvel stablemates Spider-Man or X-Men. While you could argue that there’s not quite as much scope, and Johnson was aiming for a popcorn fuelled blast of comic book escapism geekery, surely there was room for a little more re?ection on Johnny Blaze’s dilemma, beyond a couple of scenes of Nic Cage moping about his burden. While Sam Raimi used Darkman to practise the art of the superhero before bringing his full power to bear on the friendly neighbourhood webslinger, it seems Johnson hasn’t learned the lessons that Daredevil taught. His dip into Johnny Blaze’s world – the tale of a stunt rider who sells his soul to Satan in return for curing his father’s cancer – is chock full of over-earnest, corn-fed dialogue that, aside from Nic Cage, Peter Fonda and Sam Elliott, the cast end up looking like they’re embarrassed to be spouting. Fonda and Elliott overcome the hackneyed text thanks to serious acting chops, with the former Easy Rider star bringing full life to Old Nick, and the weather-beaten cowboy somehow managing to spew reams of repetitive exposition with growling panache.
At least Cage seems to be having a blast ?nally realising his long-held dream of playing a superhero on screen, and he throws in every tic, gurn, grimace and grin in his armoury. But the quirk overload doesn’t ever quite suggest the tortured soul of Johnny Blaze, and we’re more often laughing at him rather than with him. Still, with his chimp-video obsession, jellybean addiction and driving love for Karen Carpenter’s music, he is at least watchable when he’s on screen.
If only Ghost Rider’s demon form was as interesting. While the long delay in release (it was supposed to arrive in mid-2006) has allowed the effects team to tinker with and properly realise the flaming skull and skeletal bike, at no point does he really do anything all that exciting. You’ve probably seen the best, skyscraper riding moments in the trailer already. Even the likes of the penance stare – the Rider’s power to project villains’ evil deeds back against them a thousandfold – feels like something we’ve seen before. And while some of the CG work is hugely effective, there are some awful examples later in the story that recall the excesses of The Mummy Returns, and only end up making the whole affair look cheap.
Plus, while Fonda’s devil is never less than charismatic, the same can’t be said for Wes Bentley and his trio of demon chums. Bentley plays Ghost Rider’s nemesis Blackheart with all the believability of an am dram ham who’s read one too many Sandman comics. As the Big Bad, he’s a big bore, a pouting, pointless twentysomething Hellspawn with serious daddy issues and the most laughable pack of henchmen imaginable. Looking like nothing less than a boy band who’ve been through a mudslide, the three elemental enemies – representing air, earth and water – are laughably poor going up against our hero, which means that the fight scenes never get beyond dull and predictable. Just how do you make a battle between a helicopter and a fiery, skeletal, demonic warrior tedious? We’re not sure, but the result is up on screen here.
It’s a real shame, as Johnson clearly loves this character and has tried to transfer his energy and enthusiasm onto Celluloid. Passion is great, but this time it needed a co-writer or a script editor with one eye on the quality. The Rider had plenty of potential, but his cinematic outing is a real disappointment, turning a premise that should have burned white hot into something lukewarm.