Ghost Rider Review
Ghost Rider is being released on DVD in its "Extended Cut" format, with an additional 13-minutes of footage bringing the running time to 118-minutes. For reasons Sony haven't yet clarified, the version DVDTimes received for review (a complete disc with menus, warnings etc.) was the theatrical cut, complete with the advertised commentaries and the bonus-disc which is exclusive to the HMV 2-Disc Extended Cut release. For this reason the review of the film covers only the theatrical cut available to us, while the final retail version should feature the extended cut and comparable audio/video presentation.
So far it’s not been a great year for comic books fans. With both the expected disappointment of Fantastic Four 2 and the shock let down of Spider-man 3 there’s not been a lot to cheer about in the last few months. However, no matter how disappointed one might have been at Galactus's cinematic debut (if you can call it that) or how over-crowded Peter Parker's life has suddenly become, one could always console oneself with the knowledge that nothing in either of those offerings came close to the out-and-out direness of Ghost Rider. Compared to this turkey, Tim Story's fantastic sequel suddenly doesn't seem half bad, while Spidey 3 assumes the quality of, well, Spidey 2. Even when faced with stiff competition such as Elektra, Mark Steven Johnson's latest is still the nadir of comic book movies since the genre's resurgence at the beginning of the decade.
The film follows the adventures of Johnny Blaze (Cage), a modern day Evel Knievel-style daredevil rider who as a young boy sold his soul to the devil Mephistopheles (Fonda) in return for his father’s life. Now at the height of fame and fortune, Blaze is none-too-pleased when the devil calls in the favour, especially as he has just rekindled a romance with old flame Roxanne (Mendes). However, there are graver issues afoot than his love life: Blackheart (Wes Bentley), Mephistopheles’s son, has returned to Earth and is threatening to oust daddy as Devil-in-Chief, taking over every last soul on the planet into the bargain. To battle him, old horny gives Blaze the powers of the Ghost Rider, a spirit who down the centuries has taken human form to do the devil’s work and is easily picked out in a crowd by the fact he has a flaming skull where his head should be. Can Blaze take control of the powers of the Rider, defeat Blackheart, reject the advances of Mephistopheles and win the love of the fair Roxanne, all in the space of two hours?
There are so many problems with the movie that it's difficult to know where to start, but the theme seems as a place as any. Because the first Ghost Rider was a cowboy who rode around on a flaming horse (you could always tell he was coming because the smell of barbequed meat preceded him) Johnson has styled his film a “supernatural Western.” Blackheart has ridden into town determined to wreck havoc with his demonic posse (there are, naturally, four of them in total) and the only hope lies in the white-skull-wearing saviour. The film is liberally strewn with Western clichés, such as Death Valley and nods to High Noon and Once Upon a Time in the West, suitably eyed through a gothic point-of-view, but he doesn’t actually do anything with the idea, which makes the whole exercise come across flatly. There’s little sign that he really loves either genre: while paying lip service to the conventions (Blackheart’s first scene sees him causing trouble in a saloon) there’s no underlying passion, no warmth, as though he’s just melded the styles because it sounded a cool thing to do rather than because it’s a sandbox he’s always wanted to play in. Making the same mistake as the Scary/Date/Epic Movie series, he replicates without insight or wit, thinking it’s enough. It’s not. As a result, we end up with a film that is, pleasingly for the ironists out there, utterly soulless.
It's not just the film's atmosphere which has this problem. Everything else is mechanical too, from the plot structure through to the non-existent characters and the terrible dialogue they have to spout. The actors all give insipid, bored performances (Wes Bentley spends his time looking like Joaquin Phoenix's broody adolescent brother), but to a large degree one can’t blame them: they just have nothing to work with. Nicholas Cage, a famous comic book nut who even has a Ghost Rider tattoo on his upper arm, could be expected to give a dedicated, committed performance, given that he’s been itching to make a comic book movie for the better part of fifteen years, but in fact he adopts even more of a monotonic persona than usual. Permanently acting as though he’s stoned (perhaps he was, to ease the pain of the rotten production he found himself in) we get little sense of the conflict that apparently lies at the heart of Johnny Blaze’s psyche, but then Johnson doesn’t seem to want to spend much time doing so anyway. The director says in his commentary that he didn’t want to make too serious a film: yes, okay, but in that case you’ve picked the wrong project. This is a story about a man who has sold his soul to the devil, and who as his alter ego can blast his victims with the pain of every single sin they have ever committed. If you wanted to make something fun and easy go and make Fantastic Four 3 or Superman Returns Again. (Actually, no, please don’t). This fundamental misreading of what the film by its very premise should be causes lots of problems, but the most blatant is victim of this approach, Blaze aside, is Fonda’s devil, the most insipid Satan you’ll see on screen for many a year - quite a feat, given Fonda’s pedigree.
As a result we get a thematic mess, with a writer-director both uncertain as to its tone and not sufficiently talented to disguise it. The effect on the screenplay is nothing short of disaster, that indecision producing an astonishingly hackneyed piece of writing. This is actually the second draft of this review I’ve written: the first was an extremely sarcastic piece which read the movie as an enormous practical joke at the expense of Hollywood clichés, but actually it didn’t work: this film is not so much a prime example of rotten US film making today as maybe fifteen years ago. It feels like a throwback to one of those formulaic action films pumped out in the late Eighties and early Nineties, the substandard Arnie rip-offs. The production values might have improved but otherwise tonally this is exactly the same, from the terrible dialogue delivered with not a trace of irony (my favourite line being Blackheart’s “I knew you were here… I could smell your fear!”) through to the almost-painfully predictable structure. Even if you’ve never seen this film I would wager a bet you could successfully predict its opening, end of act beats and conclusion, as well as pick out who the main characters are: Hero, Girl, Evil Villain, Mentor, Funny Friend etc etc. As the credits rolled I was slack-jawed with disbelief, and felt a bit like John McEnroe: "You cannot be serious." But apparently they were.
Even if one is prepared to accept it as a simple dumb movie and excuse its myriad narrative flaws, it doesn't work on those terms either. It's neither thrilling nor sexy enough to be filed under the heading "Brainlessly entertaining." The big fight scenes are among the most unexciting I can recall seeing in a comic book movie, non-events that simply go through the motions and which are hampered still further by the fact that Ghost Rider’s abilities, or those of his enemies, are ever properly delineated. One of the main rules of a James Bond film is that a gadget should never in the last act do something to help Bond escape that the audience didn’t learn about earlier on (see Live and Let Die for an example of this being broken). Here the same sort of thing comes into effect, and as a result the tension there should be in these encounters dissipates. Similarly, the Exciting Final Showdown: when Blackheart absorbs the souls and announces “I am Legion,” if you don’t know your Ghost Rider lore that means eff all. Coupled with the fact the SFX for the Rider is only partially successful (I suspect it might be beyond even the greatest CGI artist currently working to make a flaming skull look realistic: it certainly doesn’t here) the heroic part of the film is, like everything else, a failure, while eye candy Eve Mendes never gets a chance to get the male audience's pulses racing, despite one restaurant scene which seems included solely to advertise the fact she has boobs. If one was inclined to be generous, it could be said that Johnson seems to make a decent job of bringing together the different generations of comics in one whole (I say seems to as I'm not familiar with the books) but I'm not, so I won't.
I was looking forward to this film. After Daredevil I had hopes that Johnson would develop the promise he showed there and deliver a first-rate Marvel film. Despite its flaws, the Ben Affleck film was nevertheless heart-felt and deeply sincere, accurately bringing across the atmosphere and tone of its source material, and with an extra bit of work could have been fantastic rather than just decent. This, though, is hollow and pointless, a waste of a potentially interesting premise, and a huge step back for its director. It’s not even bad in an amusing way a la the 1994 Fantastic Four. As I mentioned above, originally this review was a little longer, but you know what? I don’t want to waste any more of your or my time with this drivel. Hellish for all the wrong reasons.
As mentioned above DVD Times received a weird hybrid disc which appeared finished but had only the Theatrical Cut. The version in the shops will only have the Extended Cut (you lucky, lucky people), but I've assumed that otherwise my review copy and the retail will be identical. With that proviso in mind, and the reminder that only HMV are selling the 2-disc set, the first disc holds the movie itself, the Commentaries and trailers, the HMV-only second all other extras. One has to skip past the ubiquitous anti-pirate advert to get to the menu on Disc One, which, after a brief look at Ghost Rider climbing onboard his bike, flicks to a high-octane Main Menu, with small options running along a chain underneath a montage from the film, accompanied by the film’s bombastic score. The options are: Play Movie, Audio Set Up, Subtitles, Scene Selections (with twenty-eight chapters), Special Features and Trailers (which are for Spider-man 3, Perfect Stranger, Reign Over Me, and Surf’s Up and subtitled only in Spanish, for some reason). Disc Two opens with a static menu. The three Makings of have their own submenu, as do the Comic Book Origins. Aside from the trailers the film itself, and all extras, are subtitled in English.
The presentation of the film is decent but not five star. The Video is reasonable, but struggles occasionally for clarity on the darker scenes, which are murkier and a little blurry at times, losing crucial definition. There’s also a flatness at times, with some of the scenes set in bright sunlight somewhat washed out, while there’s slightly less detail in depth than one could wish for. The Audio, on the other hand, is fine, nicely resonant, especially with the atmospheric scenes featuring thunder and lightning, while Ghostie’s bike has a deep, satisfying vibe, making good use of the five channels.
The first commentary features Johnson with his Visual Effects Supervisor Kevin Mack. The latter is ostensibly there to talk about the SFX, but in truth he doesn’t say a whole lot about his work specifically and instead prefers to join in with Johnson’s general comments about the film as a whole. Not overflowing with interesting anecdotes or observations, this is a bland but inoffensive track.
The second, a solo commentary with producer Gary Foster, is far better. Constantly informative, honest to a certain degree (he doesn’t criticise the film, but does point out things that had to be changed, minor disagreements etc), and always relevant to what we’re watching, this is much more enjoyable and one of the few highlights on this set. If you only listen to one of these commentaries (and you only need to, given there’s some stuff that’s repeated in both), make it this one.
Ghost Rider Animatics (3:33)
Like one of those condensed versions of movies you see everywhere these days, this is a three-minute CGI tour through the film’s plot, complete with most of the action set pieces. Pretty enjoyable actually (without the dialogue, the look of the thing isn’t half bad) with a suitably thrilling soundtrack to go with it.
The Making of Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (29:01)
“I’ve regressed amazingly with this movie.” So says Johnson himself in this mildly sloppy Making Of, that drifts from one subject to another without having much coherence, and is full of people saying not very much. Boring.
The Making of Ghost Rider: Spirit of Adventure (27:11)
Part Two of the above, although as this focuses far more on the “cooler” aspects of the film there’s a little more of a theme. This and Part One could have done with a Play All function though as they are fundamentally one piece split down the middle.
The Making of Ghost Rider: Spirit of Execution (20:50)
Probably the best of these three documentaries. An eye-over-the-shoulder look at some of the SFX, visual and audio mix discussions post-production, which is mildly interesting, and doesn’t outstay its welcome.
Sin and Salvation: Comic Book Origins of Ghost Rider (10:05, 4:08, 19:08, 12:46)
Often the highlight of comicbook movie DVDs are these retrospectives covering the history of the characters, and this is no exception. I was slightly disappointed that more of Ghost Rider’s backstory and key story arcs were not discussed, which is a little surprising given how relatively unfamiliar most will be with him (for example, there are several mentions made of Zarathos, which will mean nothing to anyone who only knows the character through the movie) but this is still an interesting featurette, although like the Making Of unnecessarily broken up, this time into four segments, covering each decade of the comic’s existence, without a Play All function). Writers and artists from all generations discuss their contribution, and there are plenty of illustrations of the evolving style of the book to make this worth a watch.
A rotten film gets a set which looks good on paper but only delivers the basics of what we expect from such a two disc release these days, and is thus unremarkable. If you're a fan you'll be happy, but only just. If you're not, then getting this set really would be a mortal sin.