Saturday, September 6, 2008

Back when Nicolas Cage was arguably slightly cooler: Ghost Rider (2007)

I originally called this review "Blazing Biker Chic."

I can see why Nicolas Cage would want to star in Ghost Rider. After leading in such drippy, earnest films such as Weatherman and World Trade Center, Nicolas was in bad need of a new attitude and hair-do, and Ghost Ride” supplies both. There’s not much of a story to speak of, the villains are wafer-thin and instantly forgettable, and all of the comic book claptrap about selling one’s soul to the devil just sounds silly, but director Mark Steven Johnson understands the film’s essential appeal. It really doesn’t matter if all of the metaphysics of the devil’s bounty hunter makes sense. What matters are the radical chopper, the western theme duds, and that flaming skull.

As Dr. K. explained to me, Ghost Rider began in the 1970s when a Marvel comic strip artist came up with several designs for his editor. Should the bounty hunter have a head that emits sparks, flaming red hair, a Nazi helmet? Perhaps influenced by the Grateful Dead or a bad acid trip, he came up with a flaming skull, and the editor liked it. The film begins with Johnny Blaze, a young stunt motorcyclist in Texas seeking to cure his father from dying from lung cancer, so he sells his soul to Mephistopheles (Peter Fonda, perhaps feeling nostalgia for his biker act way back when in Easy Rider). It takes Mephistopheles a while to collect on the guy’s debt so that Nicholas Cage can take over the role as a whimsical variation on Evil Knievel. Looking a bit like Elvis with a helmet, Johnny likes to motorcycle jump over insanely large spaces packed with semis or helicopters. Johnny tends to zone out while flying, brooding over his bum deal with the devil. In his eccentric way, he tries to figure out a way out of his supernatural obligations by reading old religious books when he’s not listening to Carpenters’ music or eating jelly beans.

Fortunately, the busty Eva Mendes appears as ace television reporter Roxanne Simpson, one of Johnny’s old flames that he had to abandon because of his contractual obligation to the devil. They arrange a date, but with diabolical timing Mephistophiles forces Johnny to metamorphose into his flaming skeleton and biker black leather duds so that he can chase around an escaped demon Blackheart (Wes Bentley) and his three sidekicks who borrow elements from water, earth, and air. Glowering with goth eye-liner, Blackheart likes to go around killing people by turning them black and gruesome with his fingers, so Ghost Rider hops on his magic chopper and breaks speeding laws when he’s not riding up the side of buildings and corralling helicopters with his gigantic chain. Why he metamorphoses does not matter nearly as much the fun of his evening switchover (like Dracula). Cage grimaces and acts tortured as his skull suddenly appears behind his face in a way reminiscent of the famous werewolf change scene in American Werewolf in London.

The rest of the film is complete balderdash, but with fun action scenes. Sam Elliot makes an occasional appearance as a graveyard caretaker who explains to Johnny his metaphysical obligations, and Roxanne tries to understand just as Kirsten Dunst helps Tobey Maguire in Spiderman 2. Towards the end, the film stumbles across a basic difficulty—how do you get a flaming skull to act? Regardless, the Ghost Rider just keeps grinning and riding along, the definitive Hell’s Angel, leaving a flaming trail wherever he goes.

2 comments:

Jon said...

Yep, ol'Nick has a heap o'trash in his IMDB file.

I remember when he was one of my favorite actors... oh yeah that was 1987.

He was great in Moonstruck, Fast Times, Raising Arizona. A quirky actor, the last role that recalled the compelling roles of his earlier days was Lord of War.

FilmDr said...

I agree, and yet one wonders . . . if he can produce and star in so many films right now, in development, why can't he try something of greater quality? I heard that he has Ghost Rider 2 in development.