Thursday, October 2, 2008


You know that a $120 million plus movie is in big trouble when the most entertaining character appears in only one scene. Moreover, she defies the status quo ideal of the Hollywood babe. Rebel Wilson plays an overweight Goth chick that the hero in "Ghost Rider" saves from a vicious mugger. During a TV news interview, she describes her rescuer and flutters her fingers around her head to illustrate the flames that engulfed Ghost Rider's bone-white skull. Clever, off-beat and hilarious as this memorable scene is, "Daredevil" writer-director Mark Steven Johnson fails to deliver anything as comparatively fresh and spontaneous in his big-screen adaptation of "Ghost Rider," essentially supernatural skullduggery of a superficial sort. No, I haven't read the Marvel Comic, but what I have seen in them surpasses anything in the 110-minute, PG-13 rated Columbia Pictures' release. Altogether, "Ghost Rider" (** out of ****) suffers chiefly from hackneyed writing, lackluster villains, and pointless action scenes. "Ghost Rider" lacks the epic scale of "Superman," "Batman," "Blade," "X-Men," and "The Punisher." Nevertheless, despite all these shortcomings, "Ghost Rider" does boast a first-rate, hypnotic cast and impressive digital special effects. Neither compensate in the long run for the unimaginative screenplay so unless you are a hardcore "Ghost Rider" disciple you can stand the wait until this opus hits DVD and save yourself a fistful of bucks.

"Ghost Rider" unfolds in chronological order. We see Johnny Blaze, portrayed early on by handsome young newcomer Matt Long, at age seventeen. Mind you, the resemblance between Long and Cage is negligible. Johnny discovers to his horror that his madcap motorcyclist father, Barton Blaze (seasoned TV star Brett Cullen), has been diagnosed with terminal cancer and his chances of survival are remote. In saunters an elegantly-clad, perfectly coiffed Mephistopheles (Peter Fonda of "Easy Rider") with a cane. Meph offers to save Barton's life if Johnny will sell him his soul. Johnny bows to the devil's demands. Miraculously, Barton's doctor gives him a clean bill of health. Nevertheless, Barton dies tragically in the next scene when he crashes on the jump ramp and is burned to death. Predictably, Johnny explodes with rage, but he decides to live up to his end of the bargain, so dumps his pretty girlfriend Roxanne Simpson (Raquel Alessi) and goes off to become a legendary motorcyclist stunt master in the tradition of Evel Knievel. Nicolas Cage takes over as a grown-up, laid-back Johnny Blaze and he drives his manager Mack (Donal Logue of "Blade") around the bend with one impossible stunt after another. At one point, Johnny makes a clearly impossible jump over four Black Hawk army helicopters in a football stadium without getting a scratch.

Nothing in Mark Steven Johnson's script approaches realism and anybody who takes "Ghost Rider" literally should be buckled into a straitjacket and bundled off to the nearest insane asylum for psychiatric evaluation. This Faustian fable about a motorcycle daredevil who is transformed after the sun goes down into a sinister skull-headed bounty hunter for Satan features the most anemic Satan since Elizabeth Hurley essayed the role in "Bedazzled." Traditionally, Mephistopheles is the toughest, most treacherous villain on the books, but this Meph falls back on Ghost Rider to fend off competition from his upstart son Blackheart ("American Beauty's" Wes Bentley in cadaverous pale white-face make-up), who wants to usurp his father. At this point, Johnson's script becomes convoluted as all get-out and introduces a cemetery caretaker (Sam Elliot of "Rush") who keeps our hero abreast of all major plot revelations, including his own that he was once a Ghost Rider on horseback. Basically, aside from his flaming skull, Ghost Rider uses his penetrating glare, called a Penance Stare, to make his victims experience the anxiety of those that they have tormented. Naturally, this doesn't have much of an effect on Blackheart and they engage in a running fight. Teaming up with Blackheart are three cool-looking reprobates, Earth, Wind, and Fire. Like Blackheart, our hero takes his time dispatching these ruffians in looks only, otherwise "Ghost Rider" would have been twenty minutes shorter (and probably better). Nicolas Cage takes none of this half-baked hocus pocus seriously and plays Johnny Blaze with a bad hair-cut for laughs, gobbling jelly beans out of a martini glass rather than drinking while he relaxes to Karen Carpenter 'sTop-40 songs, until the surprise ending that leaves the movie open for a sequel. Peter Fonda does as little as possible and plays Satan as if he were a mannequin, but at least he is stylish in his restraint. Sexy Eva Mendes plays Roxanne as a grown-up who has become a Lois Lane-type TV news reporter than keeps track of Johnny's exploits. Inevitably, to get to Ghost Rider, Blackheart kidnaps Roxanne and the two guys clash in the desert at a western town. The former Ghost Rider (Sam Elliot) saddles up and rides out into sand with Ghost Rider for the showdown. Once they arrive, the old grizzled Ghost Rider pitches our protagonist his shotgun and then hightails it. Talk about a waste of Sam Elliot. Blackheart never poses a genuine threat to Ghost Rider and our hero decks his unsavory henchmen as easily as if they were ten-pins in a bowling alley. The CGI of Ghost Rider riding a gravity-defying motorcycle vertically up a skyscraper and then wielding a blazing chain whip to attack an airborne helicopter looks terrific (with an obvious nod to "King Kong") but means little in the overall scheme of things. As ominous as the hero looks after his transformation into a skeletal emissary of Satan, "Ghost Rider" emerges as more kooky than spooky.

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