It's gotten to the point where almost any movie with a narrated prologue is suspect. But the opening section of the comic-book adaptation Ghost Rider starts with a particularly troubling apocalyptic rumble of exposition. See, there was this guy a bunch of years ago who made a deal with the devil, to act as a bounty hunter for wayward souls. But in collecting souls from one dusty town, he saw things so horrifying that he defied the devil and absconded with the contract (I'm not being careful about spoilers; the movie really is that vague). The narration, which you may recognize in vocal tone if not wittiness from The Big Lebowski's Sam Elliott
, says that this figure -- this first Ghost Rider -- "outran" the devil (Peter Fonda
, by the way), but it looks more like Ghost Rider rode a horse into the sunset while the devil watched, perhaps as confused as those in the audience.
Now then: What does this have to do with Johnny Blaze, superstar motorcycle daredevil? Well, writer-director Mark Steven Johnson
will tell you, in a second prologue, after the opening credits, showing Blaze, as a teenager, making one of those unfortunate and confusing satanic contracts in an attempt to save his father's life. Johnson is apparently under the impression that this 20-minute backstory technique worked so well in his Daredevil that he can't afford to, say, skip it and get right to Nicolas Cage
, who eventually shows up as the adult Johnny, about to be confronted by the consequences of said contract. Young Johnny's deal is so inadvertent and, again, vague, that the situation lacks considerable drama, but the show must go on. Article continues below
The devil shows up, as promised, and anoints Cage as the new Ghost Rider, ordering him to hunt down his son Blackheart (Wes Bentley
), who appears to have returned to the land of the living to check out this Hot Topic thing all the kids are buzzing about. Oh, and he also kills indiscriminately. To stop him and other evildoers, Johnny will transform -- at night and/or in the presence of evil -- into a skeleton with a flaming head and even more flaming motorcycle.
Cage, it must be repeated, is one of our most game actors, almost physically incapable of an uninteresting performance; you never get the feeling that he's sleepwalking through genre trash purely for the money. He seems to genuinely enjoy playing Johnny Blaze, especially in the opening scenes (well, his opening scenes, after the interminable young-Johnny prologue), where he plays the cycle stuntman as an oddball rock star, swilling jellybeans from a wine glass and pumping Carpenters tunes to get pumped for his defiance of death.
In fact, his Johnny Blaze is so offbeat and funny that you might resent the movie's attempts to stir him into a gumbo of superhero movie tropes: a power that is both a gift and a curse; an unresolved father-son relationship wracked with guilt; the idea of making a choice to control your destiny; the somewhat conflicting idea of honorably accepting a predetermined destiny; and fighting a bunch of easily dispatched bad guys with vague powers and few lines.
The latter is accomplished through Blackheart's three demon henchmen, who are able to summon the awesome powers of water, air, and earth in order to quickly lose fights with Ghost Rider. Cage himself doesn't even get to return to the action glory of Con Air or The Rock in these scenes, since most of them necessitate his transforming into Ghost Rider, which in this case means stepping out for coffee while CGI dispatches the villains.
I guess ditching the skull would be heresy for the comics character; nevertheless, a superhero movie where you wait impatiently for the return of the mild-mannered alter ego is either a bold experiment or, well, something else. If you need a hint as to what that is, I can talk about the way Eva Mendes
, a charming actress in so many other films (and still pretty charming here, if not for the right reasons), plays a TV reporter who holds a microphone like a teenager doing a school project. Or the way that Donal Logue
's best-friend character disappears after several scenes, only to turn up again in the last third for what I shudder to think might be Johnson's idea of an emotional stakes-raising.
Actually, it's this kind of heedless incompetence that keeps Ghost Rider off the bottom of the Marvel shelf where Elektra and Fantastic Four dwell. Because the character of Ghost Rider never threatens to involve us emotionally or intellectually, the film version lacks the crushing disappointment of Daredevil, which got all its ducks in a row before a botch.
Ghost Rider doesn't even get its ducks into the same pond -- Johnson may be getting worse as both a writer and a director -- and the grab-bagginess of its failure is kind of endearing. Unfortunately, only Cage seems capable of pushing the film beyond this mess, into the mystical realm of preposterous, exuberant, self-aware goofiness; despite some intentionally funny moments to go with all of those happy accidents, Johnson seems to think his film contains actual thrills and spectacle. What it has instead is the thrill of a spectacularly silly crash and burn.