Ghost Rider Review

Stunt motorcyclist Johnny Blaze (Nicolas Cage) is the Evel Knievel of his time. He's famous for the insane, death-defying jumps he attempts and for the horrific crashes he somehow always survives. The crowds love him for it; his pit crew thinks he's crazy. None of them know his secret: Johnny can't die. He's protected by the Devil himself. When he was seventeen, Johnny made a deal with Mephistopheles (Peter Fonda) to cure his father's cancer. In return, the Devil acquired Johnny's services.

Sometimes evil escapes from Hell into our world and the missing demons need to be tracked down and returned to the flames. Sometimes a lost soul tries to renege on the contract he's made with Mephistopheles and that debt needs to be collected. These are jobs for the Ghost Rider, the Devil's own bounty hunter. At night, in the presence of evil, Johnny transforms into the fiery Rider and he takes on supernatural powers to help him do his work.

Mark Steven Johnson's latest comic book adaptation has picked up some very harsh reviews, from critics and comic fans alike. I don't know the Marvel Comics character well enough to judge whether this is a good adaptation but I do think the universal slating the film is getting is undeserved. While Ghost Rider is a long way from perfect, it's a solid Saturday night crowd pleaser. The action scenes and the special effects are impressive, the script has a sharp sense of humour and there are pleasing performances from Nicolas Cage, Peter Fonda and the inimitable Sam Elliott.

The movie's biggest achievement is making a man who morphs into a demon biker with a flaming skull sympathetic. Mark Steven Johnson has a knack for humanising superheroes. He did the same for the blind acrobat hero of his previous comic book blockbuster, Daredevil. While Johnson certainly comes from the Michael Bay school of action direction - he loves his slow-motion CGI shots - he does at least have the patience to set up his story and develop his hero before he sits down with the special effects boys to show us demonic motorcycles riding up the sides of skyscrapers.

As played by Nicolas Cage, Johnny Blaze is a very likeable hell's angel. Despite the character's tragic side, Cage plays the part in high spirits, emphasising Johnny's devil-may-care swagger. It's a relief to see the actor having fun again after watching him wear the same despondent frown throughout The Weather Man, World Trade Center and The Wicker Man. Cage is nicely supported by Peter Fonda as the smooth-tongued Mephistopheles and especially by Sam Elliott, who uses his cowboy looks and his gravelly voice to great effect as a mysterious character known as the Caretaker.

If Ghost Rider is lacking something important, it's a great villain, something Daredevil had in Colin Farrell. Peter Fonda is fun to watch but he's a supporting character. The real bad guy is the demon Blackheart, played by Wes Bentley, made up to look curiously like Joaquin Phoenix. Unfortunately, Bentley doesn't have the charisma to play a comic book villain. That requires an actor who can steal all his scenes - no easy task when the hero is a blazing monster in black leather! - and the young man isn't up to it.

Also not making much of an impact are Eva Mendes, as Johnny's childhood sweetheart and Donal Logue, as his trusty mechanic. Both these actors are onscreen a lot without having interesting characters to play. Mendes acts like she wandered onto the set, thinking she was still making Hitch. As the love interest and sidekick respectively, they're pale shadows of Jennifer Garner's ass-kicking heroine and Jon Favreau's wisecracking lawyer in Daredevil.

The script is a mixed bag. The plot is thin to the point where the movie drags in places. It leaves questions unanswered too. What is so special about that contract that Blackheart and Mephistopheles both want? Why is the Devil apparently unaware of many of the things his Ghost Rider does? He always seemed to know what everyone was up to in the Omen films! For that matter, what does the Devil need with a bloke on a motorbike whose head is on fire? Why do the police and the public not seem more surprised that there is a demon on a Harley in their city? If the story is flawed, the script has enough wit that you can forgive it and even the slow parts never quite cross the line into boring.

Of course this is a movie in which the special effects count for at least as much as the writing and the acting - the effects literally are the star in the Ghost Rider's scenes! The CGI work is pretty impressive for the most part, although Constantine stole its thunder a little with its demon effects. The Rider and his bike look great and Mark Steven Johnson's attention-grabbing money shots, such as a motorbike leaping from a roof in slow motion, get the reaction he wants.

I admit I'm coming to Ghost Rider as a comics philistine. I did have a couple of Ghost Rider comics as a boy but I barely remember them. I was into Mad magazine and Stephen King in my teens, not superheroes. I do enjoy a good superhero film though and this is one of the more enjoyable ones I've seen. It's not up there with Batman Begins and Spider-Man 2 but nor is it as dumbed down as Fantastic Four or as drawn out and reverent as Superman Returns. Ghost Rider fans might be advised to check out more like-minded reviewers and serious cineastes should just move along, nothing to see here! I think general audiences looking for an undemanding action blockbuster will enjoy it though. Taken for what it is, a simple, special-effects-driven action movie, it's a lot of fun.



out of 10

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