Friday, June 22, 2007

Ghost Rider

Director: Mark Steven Johnson
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Eva Mendes, Peter Fonda, Wes Bentley, Matt Long, Raquel Alessi, Brett Cullen, Sam Elliot Donal Logue

Running Time: 114 min.

Rating: PG-13

*1/2 (out of ****)

Nearly every DVD player has a display on the front that tells you how much time has elapsed in the disc you're viewing. While I was watching Ghost Rider this display became my worst enemy as I was constantly eyeing it, hoping the suffering would end soon. It's not that Ghost Rider is just merely a bad film, but rather it doesn't even extend the courtesy to its audience to fail interestingly or entertainingly. It's not even a fun bad movie. Aren't comic book movies supposed to be exciting and create a sense of wonder for the audience? It contains three story arcs rolled into one, yet that just makes the film three times as bad because each one is handled with equal ineptness. It's unpleasant to look at, the script seems as if it was written during a break in study hall and the performances (one especially) are for the most part awful. It's based on a popular comic book that tells the story of a stunt driver who sells his soul to the devil. When the film ended I was willing to sell my soul to the Devil in exchange for having never experienced this mess.

Johnny Blaze (Nicolas Cage) is a stunt motorcycle rider whose legendary daredevil father Barton Blaze (Brett Cullen) is dying of lung cancer and is approached is approached by the Devil (Peter Fonda, collecting a paycheck), who offers to cure him. That is, if he gives up his soul. He does (although rather inadvertently) and the Devil kills his father anyway in a freak accident forcing Johnny to leave town and his beloved girlfriend, Roxanne (Eva Mendes). Years later he goes on to become one of the world's top stuntmen, always cheating death. However, Mephistopheles is always looking over his shoulder protecting him and waiting for the time when he'll be of use.

That time comes when his son, Blackheart (Wes Bentley) arrives and attempts to possess one thousand evil souls and create a hell on Earth. Or something like that. So now Johnny must become Ghost Rider, a hell-raising flaming skulled vigilante on a bike and take down Blackheart and his minions to get out of his deal with Satan. There's also a lot of other nonsense about a contract Mephistopheles and Blackheart are fighting over that dates back to the old west and involves a funeral caretaker (Sam Elliot), who's also narrating the story. His character is so confusing and complicated I wouldn't know how to explain it to anyone. Johnny also has to protect Roxanne, who's just recently reentered his life and wants some answers.

The first five to ten minutes of Ghost Rider are actually very promising. The idea of a mortal man selling his soul to the Devil is fascinating and a lot of interesting material could have been mined from it. The opening grabs you and it kind of reminded me last year's Edward Norton starring film, The Illusionist. Boy and girl from seemingly different worlds fall in love and are torn apart only to reconnect years later when everything has changed. Just substitute stuntman for magician. Both films also deal with the supernatural. Little did I know at the time just how unfair a comparison that would be. After a promising start the movie flashes into the future and from then on becomes a case study in how not to make a successful comic book movie. The biggest problem is writer/director Mark Steven Johnson (Daredevil) tries to do a lot of things at once and doesn't stop long enough to make sure any of them work. We have a whirlwind romance, a pact with the Devil and, worst of all, a supernatural action movie. Amidst all of this are some bad performances, cringe worthy dialogue and ugly special effects.

It's hard to single out the worst aspect of the film, but it all started to go downhill with the appearance of Bentley's Blackheart and his henchmen. Johnson stages their entrance with wildly flashing street lights that are so blinding and distracting I actually had to look away from the screen fearing it would burn my retina. Then he just starts killing people. That would be fine if Bentley were the slightest bit believable in the role. In fact, forget about believability (it is a comic book movie after all), I would settle for Bentley just not looking so physically uncomfortable. He's seems stiff and unnatural, like he's embarrassed to be there. His eyes are also giving a different performance than the rest of his body as he overacts hysterically. That's not even to mention he doesn't look the slightest bit intimidating and is just all wrong for the part. It's like he accidentally walked on set on the way back from a Halloween party with his friends. People have been complaining about Julian McMahon's performance as Doctor Doom in The Fantastic Four films, but they'll want to start an Oscar campaign for him after watching Bentley's work here. It's tough to believe this is even the same actor who did such great low-key work in the Academy Award winning American Beauty in 1999.

The film's attempts at a believable romance work at the start of the film when Matt Long and Racquel Alessi (who, to the casting director's credit, looks EXACTLY like Eva Mendes) are playing the parts of young Johnny and Roxanne. When Cage and Mendes take on the parts all that energy and chemistry seems to be gone. It definitely doesn't help Johnson reintroduces Roxanne in the most contrived way imaginable. There should be a new law in Hollywood stating that attractive actresses can no longer play television reporters in movies. It's the most thankless onscreen occupation available and exists solely to convey expository dialogue and move the plot forward. The part is always written with an attractive actress in mind since we've been trained by Hollywood into believing beautiful women are not capable of holding any job that requires them to think. They should just stand there and look into the camera.

I have no idea whether her character was a tv reporter in the comic (or even if her character was in the comic for that matter) but it should have been scrapped because it comes off lazy and stupid here. What's far worse is Johnson doesn't even get the details of being a reporter right. When was the last time a reporter signed off saying something like: "This is Roxanne Simpson…on scene." When was the last time you heard a reporter say something like that? To her credit, Mendes gives the least worst performance in the film and does what she can with what she's given, or not given. This occupation also exists so Johnson can stage an awkward reunion scene where Roxanne has to interview Johnny. The scene isn't awkward because they haven't seen each other for years and are unsure of their feelings, but rather because the two actors have absolutely no idea how to play it. That's not their fault, it's Johnson's.

I've yet to talk about Ghost Rider himself or how Blaze transforms into him. It's an ugly visual effect that looks more like a cartoon than anything else. The problem isn't so much that it doesn't look real (how can anyone reasonably expect a human head transforming into a flaming skull to look realistic anyway?) but that it just looks unpleasant. You can't root for a character that looks and sounds like that. It probably doesn't help that he's doing the work of the Devil either. One of the most laughable elements of the film is the "penance stare" he gives evildoers and the hysterical facial contortions the actors give in reaction to it. Johnson even makes sure he adds a scene where a dumb-founded cop looks at his radar gun after Ghost Rider whizzes by him, leaving a trail of fire. Hilarious.

This is easily the worst performance I've ever seen from Nicolas Cage, although in his defense there's nothing he could have done to save this. His southern accent wavers in and out, his hairpiece is distracting and he seems to be sleepwalking through the entire film. I'm glad the movie establishes that he's a world class daredevil stuntman because there's no way Johnny Blaze could achieve any degree of fame based on his charisma. Cage is a great actor but lately a disturbing trend has developed where he seems to be taking paycheck parts in action movies that are so bad the studios aren't even screening them for critics. I hope this stops soon and Cage gets back to more character driven vehicles, or at least action movies that are entertaining.

The movie has a couple of things going for it. I liked the score from Christopher Young. At least it was different and fit the material. Sam Elliot also has a great voice for the narration, it's just too bad he had to appear as a pointless, confusing character in the film. In a sad sign of the times this movie actually cleaned up at the box office and there are actually plans for a sequel. That scares me. I've never read the comic. I don't know, maybe it's good. You'd figure it has to be better than this. What I do know is when this film ended I wanted only one thing set ablaze: Director Mark Steven Johnson.

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