Review: “Ghost Rider”

As comic book film adaptations reach further down into the barrel to find marketable franchises, so continues their inevitable decline in quality with “Ghost Rider” – a dull and often silly adaptation of one of Marvel’s second-tier heroes. Mark Steven Johnson, the director of the deeply flawed but stylistically interesting Batman-clone “Daredevil”, brings the same lack of understanding of his central character to ‘Rider’, but worsens the deal with a weaker story, cast and premise. The saving grace of ‘Rider’ is surprisingly Nicolas Cage, a solid actor whose manic performances have made films like “The Wicker Man” into modern day camp classics.

This film had all the potential to be another signature wacky turn by Cage – yet he surprisingly tones it down in many of his non-Rider scenes whilst adding a few enjoyable personal quirks of his own – such as a penchant for Karen Carpenter. A scene with Cage on a freeway trying to charm and then catch the tightly dressed Eva Mendes attention is totally useless to the plot – which explains why it is by far the film’s best sequence and the only one that actually flows quite naturally. The narrative, involving a missing contract being sought by the devil’s son and his minions, is decidedly flimsy and uninteresting.

The characterization is even worse, and the dialogue borders on the clunky and painfully bad surprisingly often. In fact the film occasionally falls right into camp territory, not counting the fact that pretty much everyone in the cast has horrible hair. A supposedly damning hand gesture by Cage on two occasions looks more like carpal tunnel syndrome. Sam Shephard’s big redemptive moment proves farcical thanks to a poorly CG animated horse. References to Peter Fonda’s “Easy Rider” days are somewhat blatantly displayed in the hammy dialogue, as is some real clunkers including the woeful “He may have taken my soul, but he can?t take my spirit”.

Then of course there’s the bad guys – all of which are badly performed. Fonda comes off the best of that bunch, underplaying his devilish Mephistopheles, but he wheezes with effort at times that you get the distinct impression he is somewhat ill. Not escaping so easily is Wes Bentley, the handsome “American Beauty” star with the famously furrowed brow and big eyes plays Blackheart like a rather catty version of David Boreanaz’s “Angel”. Armed with albino skin and a trench coat stolen from the “Matrix” leftover wardrobe department, Bentley spends most of his time somewhere between petulant child and flamboyant goth.

Other difficulties aren’t so easily appreciated. Plot holes galore are spread throughout the film, characters pop up and disappear without much reason or logic. Lots of elements of main characters like Blackheart are entirely unexplored, and others seem only tailor made to make sense to those who read the comic. A flashback at the start feels awfully cliche and familiar. A confrontation between the Devil and his son proves one of the most messily edited sequences I’ve seen in ages, and the Melbourne location never convincingly feels like some city in the American mid-West.

Its not a complete wash ala “Catwoman”, but it ain’t far off. The early stuff with Cage’s stunt man work is pretty solid. The action at times, most notably the standoff with police, is actually quite effective. The flames and skull often seem very video gameish, but every now and then they’ll surprise you with their effectiveness. Finally there’s a nice lighthearted tone at key moments which helps make the more dour moments palatable. These few strong elements aren’t enough to keep this ride aflame though.