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    « First images from Aronofsky's Black Swan | Main | Let Me In Comic Con Poster »

    Marveling At The Past - Ghost Rider (2007)

    "I sold my soul to the Devil and now I have to spare you."

    "Spare me from what?"

    "The Devil, on account that I work for him. That's why I couldn't make it to dinner."

    'Ghost Rider' is the kind of comic book movie I thought we left behind us in the 90's. It contains clichés that are literally a decade old. It has no plot. Its token female character is so underdeveloped and uninteresting that it sets the movement for strong women in this genre back about five steps. It does not even attempt to be about anything. You sit there bored out of your flaming skull for two hours and feel robbed of your money. Of the unholy trilogy of Marvel movies released in 2007 (including 'Spider-man 3' & 'Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer'), 'Ghost Rider' was certainly the worst.

    While I was doing a little research for this piece (stop laughing) I found an interview with the film's director Mark Steven Johnson back from 2005 at AICN right here. In this piece Johnson revealed that he wanted to make a movie about Ghost Rider even before choosing to direct 'Daredevil'. Just that statement alone has my head spinning. As I mentioned when we discussed 'Daredevil', for all its flaws, it is a film made with love that genuinely understands its main character, as well as the tone and mood of the piece. If 'Ghost Rider' is Johnson's passion project then why does it end up as the far weaker film of the two? Does it prove that Johnson only knew how to write and direct one comic book movie decently? Does it prove that the source material is not strong enough in this case to carry the weight of its director's weakness for making films?

    Ghost Rider is certainly not one of Marvel's richest comic book sagas but it does offer great potential for a fantasy horror film which delves into the occult, macabre, satanic and ethereal in ways none of their other titles can. Even better for Johnson, there is no expectation or demand from an audience for a horror film to be densely layered and psychologically stimulating. All you need do is chill them, freak them out and take them on a wild ride. 'Ghost Rider' as a film is incapable of this. Most of its settings are mundane. Its villains are pathetic. Its tortured soul of a main character is played almost completely for laughs.

    When we see Johnny Blaze become the Ghost Rider, when we see this regular guy that we have come to like be transformed into a flaming skull head, it should thoroughly creep us out. In that moment, we should know that Blaze really is dammed for the deal he made with the Devil and there is no way he can have a normal life. Johnson's aim seems to be to simply convey how cool it must be to have this power.

    Coolness is the one thing, besides Nicholas Cage's earnest performance, that you can recommend about the film. The realisation of the Ghost Rider character visually is a real treat. It is one of those instances where the character as presented in the source material has been able to be translated to the screen without any concession or sacrifice. Ghost Rider leaps out of the page. He looks fantastic in his spiked leather jacket. The shots of him cruising down streets, up (and off of) buildings and racing against previous horseback riding Ghost Riders in the desert are beautifully realised.

    But this is all we are talking about; shots, not actual action sequences. In each and every one of these, Johnson finds a way to destroy any sense of tension, momentum or adrenaline. The prime example of him setting up something potentially awesome and then letting the air out of the balloon comes during the third act. Sam Elliot's mentor character Carter Slade reveals to Blaze that he is the previous Ghost Rider from a generation ago who stole the contract for a thousand souls that the villains have been searching for. The villains have kidnapped the love interest and rather than sending Blaze off into battle alone, Elliot's character transforms one final time into his Rider persona. Our heroes speed across the desert towards the final set piece. They stop on the outskirts. We can't wait to see these two Riders fight demons side by side with shotguns and flaming chains. Then Sam Elliot turns back to normal and wishes our hero good luck. For some reason he only had the strength to transform for that one special effects shot and now he's done. So he just rides off for no credible reason and we are left utterly flabbergasted.

    Before that, we have to endure the agony of Ghost Rider being chased by the police. In fact, Johnson leaves no box un-ticked for antagonist cop clichés in comic book movies. The police captain is a grouchy ass. The hero is arrested for crimes committed by the villains. The good cop and bad cop grill the cool headed hero in an interrogation room. The hero is forced to fight criminals in the lock up for no reason save that they can smell innocent people and that seems to immediately send them into a rabid rage. The hero escapes the jail and the cops engage in a high street pursuit. The hero is cornered outside some random building where the cops all line up horizontally to partake in the Johnny Blaze shooting gallery (with the love interest character thrown in as well to really ramp up the forced tragedy). And after that, we get on with the third act and the cops are never seen again.

    As we've discussed over the last few weeks, the Marvel movies have contained their fair share of poor villains ranging from the mundaneness of Doctor Doom to the atrocity of Dracula and his crew of idiotic vampires in 'Blade: Trinity'. But the villains of 'Ghost Rider' take the prize. Wes Bentley's performance as Blackheart is unbelievably bad. His character is the typical spoiled brat offspring desperate to usurp his daddy for no particular reason save he was born bad. His crew of walking special effects/henchmen, as has been commented by everyone else, are the most pathetic, easily defeated villains ever seen in a comic book movie. It only stands out so much in the film because of the way said villains just seem to wander around the film aimlessly looking for the plot and then stand around as Ghost Rider picks them off one by one. The audience is not even given the proper information as to what kind of demons these creatures are, how or even if they can be killed. It just happens.

    Our only hope of a credible threat lies with Satan himself (or Mephistopheles to give him his moniker in the film); the one who sets the plot into motion, tortures our hero and will unleash hell on Earth if given half a chance. Unfortunately, the character is played by Peter Fonda so that does not happen. It isn't just the miscasting but they way the entire story seems to completely undermine the character. We are told at the beginning of the film that the fabled 'contract of San Venganza', the contract for a thousand corrupt souls, will be enough for him to conquer Earth. You would think being the lord of the underworld that you would have plenty souls and plenty of time to build an army, both before the 100 years past prologue of the film and after it. I also do not understand how, with all his power, that Mephisto is unable to stop Carter Slade from running away with said contract, nor how Johnny Blaze is free to turn his own back on the demon at the end of the film. Blackheart spends the entire movie on a crusade to bring his father's rule to an end with Mephisto's only defense being to rely on some wacky human who owes him a favour. Everyone in the film walks all over Satan and, because of some self-imposed nonsense about him not being able to take action on the mortal plain save for when the plot needs him to, he lets it happen.

    Another blunder is the way the deal for Blaze's soul is struck with Mephisto, with the latter agreeing to cure Johnny's father's cancer. Right after the deal, Johnny watches as Barton Blaze is killed in a stunt motorbike jump. Rather than the audience being given the opportunity to pose the question to themselves whether Barton's death was a result of cruel irony or darker forces, the film cuts to Mephisto's evil cackling as Johnny cradles his dead father. By ramming this down our throat, there is no chance for the film to play with the possibility of Blaze faithfully serving the forces of evil out of obligation and ignorance.

    The film does present the neat idea when we are introduced to the older Blaze of a man with nothing to live for yet one adored by millions for his crazy bike stunts. We are shown the dichotomy of Blaze only being able to perform these stunts and survive because Mephisto is keeping him alive and yet wanting nothing more than to die, seemingly. Blaze cannot be sure that it is the Devil watching out for him and almost begins to repress the memory of the deal he made, wondering if it is time to move on and start living. When his lost love Roxanne comes back into his life, he takes it as the sign. If the film is about anything it is the story of a man who tries to start living his life and just when things start to come together, his soul is reclaimed by darkness. It would make for quite the Greek tragedy if it weren't played completely for laughs and Nicholas Cage and Eva Mendes had the slightest bit of chemistry together.

    Then again, Johnson already tried to give us a greek tragedy in 'Daredevil' and, in the opinion of some people, was only able to deliver the latter part of that phrase. If 'Ghost Rider' shows me anything, it is the vision of a director who only had one comic book movie in him. If this is the film he really wanted to make first time out then it seems we were slightly deprived of a better film. Johnson was at the very least able to demonstrate passion and energy to 'Daredevil' and it seems that film sucked those talents away with it. 'Ghost Rider' is limp, lifeless and in desperate need of a soul itself.

    Reader Comments (2)

    You're dead on about the transformation. Our reaction should be the same way we all reacted when David Naughton became a werewolf. Horrified.

    07-23-2010 | Unregistered CommenterLighthouse

    I could not agree more with you in regards to cool looking FX and hardly any action (save for Rider casuing problems for a helicopter pilot and Blaze's stunt crash) yet I still liked the film quite a bit. I thought Wes Bentley- who pulled off better menace in P2 (though not by much) was bland and I wished he just shut his mouth. I disgree, however, with the "miscast" Peter Fonda. I had no problem with him or his performance whatsoever. It might be interesting to see how the sequel comes out...if they ever get around to it.

    As for your series here, Phil, I see you are not brave enough to take on 'Howard The Duck' or 'Punisher War Zone'.

    08-4-2010 | Unregistered CommenterDarren J Seeley

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