GHOST RIDER

PG-13

-By Frank Lovece


For movie details, please click here.

The elements were there to make this one of the good Marvel Comics movies--literally, what with villains embodying the forces of wind, earth and air, and the hero embodying fire. But the only thing elementary about this execrable adaptation of Marvel's supernatural, motorcycle-riding spirit of vengeance is that it went unscreened for critics for understandable reasons--about $44.5 million worth of them, judging from the opening-weekend grosses that the film's marketing barrage brought in. But with an anticipated box-office death once word of mouth gets out, Ghost Rider's true legacy, in light of its four producers and half-dozen executive producers, will be as a hiring hall and not a movie.

What deal with the Devil did writer-director Mark Steven Johnson make that's allowed him to write and direct the poorly reviewed flop Daredevil, get paid as an executive producer of the reviled, box-office-bomb spinoff Elektra, and then still be allowed to write and direct another Marvel movie--or any movie? What with Ghost Rider's tiresomely unoriginal Goth visuals, lack of internal logic, poorly directed performers, disrespect for its audience, and posturing that passes for style, all the movie can muster up is a handful enough of videogame-cool graphics to put together a killer trailer. That's not a movie. It's just the idea for one. Full disclosure: I've written for Marvel's Johnny Blaze version of the character. As I'm sure will be evident from the critical consensus, that fact has no bearing on my opinion of the movie.

Young Johnny Blaze (Matt Long) is a penny-ante carnival stunt-rider with his cancer-stricken father (Brett Cullen, great in a small role). After making a Faustian bargain with Mephistopheles (Peter Fonda) to cure his dad--who, miraculously cancer-free, immediately dies in a motorcycle accident--Johnny learns he's now to serve the Devil, who will return someday to call in his marker. Leaving behind his young love, Roxanne Simpson (Raquel Alessi), he rides off to find his destiny. Or something.

Growing up to become a star stunt-cyclist (a hammy-fun Nicolas Cage), Johnny keeps waiting for the other hoof to drop. But when he meets the adult Roxanne (Eva Mendes), a TV newswoman, he takes it as a divine sign of a second chance. Fat chance: Mephistopheles' son, Blackheart (Wes Bentley), has chosen that moment out of the last hundred-plus years to gather three fallen-angel buddies--rendered as interchangeable throwaway characters--to retrieve a scroll containing a thousand particularly evil souls, through which Blackheart will usurp his dad. Being all bemused and cryptic throughout is Caretaker (a scraggly Sam Elliott in tobacco-spittin' mode), who dispenses advice once the Devil turns Johnny into the titular blaze-headed bounty hunter to fend off Blackheart.

The movie uses the original, Johnny Blaze version of the character created in 1972 by writers Roy Thomas and Gary Friedrich and artist Mike Ploog--none of whom, incidentally, get any onscreen credit, unlike Stan Lee, Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby on fellow Marvel movies Spider-Man and Fantastic Four. A couple of nods to the 1990s Dan Ketch version of the character include his "penance stare," a lobotomizing gaze through which some miscreant sees his sins.

Mendes' stark lack of acting talent becomes embarrassingly evident in a role bearing not even a cursory relationship to a real-life news professional, and that's not even taking into consideration a wardrobe that looks like it came off a naughty-newscaster porn picture. Blackheart, we're told, can't enter hallowed ground--except, hey, when he can. Ghost Rider at one point gets stabbed, harmlessly, leaving Johnny to suffer the knife wound when he transforms back--so how come Ghost Rider gets harmlessly crushed by a truck and when Johnny transforms back he's not street pizza? And for what damned reason does Johnny turn into an absolute jerk as Ghost Rider, flipping cops the bird and delivering leaden bon mots?

Anyone who knows the character from the comics will be disappointed. Anyone outside a head-banging 13-year-old will be laughing their asses off.


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