(Movie Review by Richard Lewis) I sat down in the theater with a big smile on my face. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that I had managed to somehow find a seat up front in a sold out show. Frankly, I think it’s just because I actually like superhero movies. I normally give these films the benefit of the doubt and judge them on their own merits, based on how well the film accomplishes what it sets out to do. In the case of “Ghost Rider”, the film started out well enough, and the set-up is good — a tale of young love gone awry, a deal made with the devil, loss, lost loved ones, lost love, lost soul, and a chance for redemption. All very dramatic, eternal themes.
In a desperate attempt to save the life of his cancer-stricken father, young stunt motorcyclist Johnny Blaze (Nicolas Cage) makes a deal with the devil. Except in this case, the devil’s name is Mephistopheles, who is well played by Peter Fonda. Although in a movie about a (literal) hell-on-wheels biker, I am surprised the filmmakers missed the opportunity to put Fonda, the former star of “Easy Rider”, on Blaze’s chopper at least once. It would have been a nice touch for Fonda to maybe drive the bike up and turn the keys over to the new rider.
Another veteran actor who comes across very well, and steals all the scenes he is in, is Sam Elliott, who plays the mysterious Caretaker. This is the stereotypical wise one who understands the hero’s dilemma and can explain to him (and us) everything that is going on. Elliot is no stranger to superhero movies. He played the menacing General Ross in director Ang Lee’s “Hulk” a few years ago. With Elliot’s trademark southern drawl and smiling steely eyes, the clich’ works pretty well here. (By the way, if you want to see a film that really showcases Sam Elliot’s talent, I strongly recommend you go out right away and rent 2003’s “Off the Map”. In this far superior work, Eliot delivers one of the most intensely subtle and affecting performances I have ever seen on film, as a father who overcomes a crippling depression.)
The lead role of Johnny Blaze/Ghost Rider is played effectively by Nicolas Cage, although his alter ego owes as much to the CG artists as to Cage’s skills as an actor. In fact, the animators used an actual x-ray of the actor’s skull, while computer programmers wrote brand new code for his flaming cranium. Cage, who is a confessed comic book fan, is likable as Blaze, although something is lost when he transforms into Ghost Rider. (He was originally considered for the lead role in the recent “Superman Returns”, by the way. The actor has said that he opted for the less iconic but darker role of Ghost Rider.) Once Cage “flames on,” instead of being frightened by his laughing skull, I found I was also laughing, not with Ghost Rider, but at him. He just looks too darn silly to believe.
Eva Mendes is TV reporter Roxanne Simpson, the movie’s love interest. Although not credible at all as a news reporter, Mendes is quite likable as the girl (we all wish lived) next door. Mendes shows enough cleavage in every scene to keep any male over 14 interested until the credits roll. And she does have genuine chemistry with Cage, who nearly devours her face in one of their kissing scenes. (*Sidebar: chewing scenery aside, Mendes apparently has a problem with biting her nails. In many of the film’s close-up scenes, her lovely, long fingers appear barely tipped by nubs gnawed to the quick)
The biggest disappointment of all comes from the performance of Wes Bentley as the villainous Blackheart, the film’s main antagonist. Blaze is forced by Mephistopheles to battle Blackheart (Mephistopheles’ devilish son) and Blackheart’s posse of wicked fallen angels previously kicked out of heaven by none other than Saint Michael the Archangel. Blackheart, it seems, is “hell-bent” to take over the satanic family business against the wishes of dear old dad. Bentley won critical acclaim and numerous awards for his performance as teenager Ricky Fitts in the Best Picture of 1999, “American Beauty.” A fine actor, Bentley was dark and chilling as Fitts, but in “Ghost Rider”, he falls flat. The actor is too weighed down by excessive make-up, over-the-top effects, and corny dialogue for his performance to come through. It is a shame because I really expected Bentley to steal the show.
Writer/director Mark Steven Johnson does a competent job of directing “Ghost Rider”, although his script leaves a lot to be desired. He telegraphs the ending of how Ghost Rider will eventually overcome Blackheart so much so that even a child will see it coming a mile away. Johnson has written other superhero flicks, 2003’s “Daredevil” for example, which also suffered from silly dialogue. The director’s most effective accomplishment is the love story between Roxanne Simpson and Johnny Blaze, and I enjoyed that much more than the battle between Blackheart and Ghost Rider.
Who knows, maybe some day Eva Mendes and Nicolas Cage will team up for a romantic comedy, hopefully one that will not involve anyone’s head bursting into flames.
Mark Steven Johnson (director) / Mark Steven Johnson (screenplay)
CAST: Matt Long … Young Johnny Blaze
Raquel Alessi … Young Roxanne Simpson
Brett Cullen … Barton Blaze
Peter Fonda … Mephistopheles
Nicolas Cage … Johnny Blaze/Ghost Rider
Donal Logue … Mack