Ghost Rider: The Franchise That Flamed Out
My take on the 2007 Ghost Rider film.
They couldn't all be winners. As we saw most recently with "Green Lantern" and "John Carter of Mars," there will be some dead horses in the gulch in the twelve years-and-counting Gold Rush of Hollywood comics adaptations. Case in point, "Ghost Rider," (2007) starring Nicolas Cage and Eva Mendes. Sometimes getting a spontaneous actor to play a lesser-known comic book character (i.e. Robert Downey Jr. in "Iron Man") yields unexpected riches. Sometimes it doesn't.
Originally Marvel Comics' melding of its competitor's "Batman" with the West Coast cults and biker subcultures of the early '70s, the revival of "Ghost Rider" was perfectly timed with the "American Chopper" zeitgeist then raging through the country (God forbid a quiet afternoon go by without the staccato belch of a hog racing up the street). But how Satan's bounty hunter with a heart of gold would play in the Bush-era, mega-church mentality of modern red-state America was something the studios hadn't considered. Whoops.
It's wasn't for lack of trying. we learn through perfunctory flashback of carnival stunt-rider Johnny Blaze's soul-selling pact with Mephistopheles (Peter Fonda, whose monotone evokes the Prince of Darkness as much as anything) to save his father from cancer. A Luciferian Catch-22 is of course involved, spurring the soulless Johnny to leave behind his teenage love (did they really need to get another actress for the younger years of the then under-30 Mendes?). Cut to the present, where the adult Johnny (Nicolas Cage) is a popular but haunted Evel Knievel artist in Houston arenas. Satan's son Blackheart (Wes Bentley) and his Goth crew are in town looking for a contract of lost souls that could bring about hell on Earth. Johnny is our only hope, and soon he's transformed into the Ghost Rider, a flaming skull, tattoo-brought-to-life avenger almost as terrifying as Cage's acting.
Nic, at this point right before he began his run of single-word titled B-disaster flicks ("Next," "Knowing") was a cross between old-fashioned movie star ("Windtalkers," "National Treasure") and Lisa-Marie marrying goofball (he probably accepted the role because black leather made him feel like Elvis in the '68 Comeback Special)and he injects enough of his natural camp to keep the familiar pulp slightly above ho-hum. He must have suggested Blaze's habit of swilling jellybean martinis and listening to the Carpenters while pondering the dark forces that hound him. Meanwhile, sidekick Sam Elliot's voice-over description of Old West legends unintentionally parodies (de-parodies?) his narration in "The Big Lebowski" ("It was as dark as a black steer's tuchus on a dark prairie night...").
"Ghost Rider" was always admittedly one of Marvel's lesser properties, probably the reason it was dumped into the movie season's winter twilight before the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man sequels earned the expected summer bank. But Mighty Marvel's overexposure of its patented 'outcast hero' formula proved fatal. Mendes has chemistry with about any male lead she's paired with, but I nodded off during the usual "confused explanation to loved one" scene.
Liquid flames smothered all, and the climax had some great stereo effects depending on how well your local theater was equipped. It's just, despite swearing at the cops and some suggestive S & M maneuvers with his chain, Ghost Rider made kind of an inert heroic presence. So even Nic barely had the legs to propel the Rider beyond the sequeless ignominy that befell "Daredevil" (the fumbling reboot "Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance") Still, if failures like this mean Hollywood won't strip-mine every last third-tier comic book property ("Guardians Of The Galaxy"? Really? Really?), at least we'll be spared pairings like LL Cool J and Justin Timberlake in an adaptation of Marvel's blaxploitation classic, "Heroes For Hire: Power Man and Iron Fist."
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