Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
March 2007

Man on fire

Let 'Ghost Rider' be a lesson: Stop letting Mark Steven Johnson make movies

Ghost Rider
Columbia Pictures
Director: Mark Steven Johnson
Screenplay: Mark Steven Johnson
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Eva Mendes, Wes Bentley, Peter Fonda, Donal Logue, Brett Cullen and Sam Elliott
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 54 minutes
(out of four)

When dramatizing larger-than-life characters (concepts, really) as God and the devil -- demons and angels -- logical questions can't help but enter into the equation. But if he's powerful enough to do that, why can't he just...? Such questions are inevitable, and they're hard to make sense of.

Just ask Nicolas Cage; he played an angel once. He should know all about it.

But nevermind. Truth is, we can easily disregard and forgive those questions with a good movie. But Ghost Rider is not one of those. It obviously has an audience, and based on the record-setting weekend box-office numbers, it unfortunately assures that director Mark Steven Johnson will be able to continue to find work. But in an age when comic-book movies have continued to raise the bar, Johnson continues to dumb it down.

This is the second time he's done this. After the first Spider-Man set the world on fire, he countered with the lifeless, plotless Daredevil. Now, after Sin City, Batman Begins, Spider-Man 2 and Hellboy have set a new gold standard, taking the subgenre in risky and exciting new directions, Johnson returns with Ghost Rider, the excruciatingly silly adaptation of the Marvel Comics series.

His approach isn't necessarily the problem. He utilizes a Western motif for the film (which might explain Cage's unfortunate Southern accent) in its setting and style. While I'm no expert on the Ghost Rider series, I'm sure this is an idea taken from the comics. And it's a good enough idea to work.

Like any number of tortured Western heroes, Cage's Johnny Blaze is a loner with a debt to pay; his motorcycle is like his trusty steed. As a teenager, he sold his soul to the devil -- or at least the devil's proxy, Mephistopheles -- in exchange for the sparing of his dying father's life.

In a cruel twist that Johnny somehow can't see coming, the devil takes the father's life anyway, leaving Johnny tortured by guilt and doomed to spend eternity as the devil's bounty hunter. At night -- or at any time in the presence of evil -- he transforms into a supernatural force with a flaming skull, a combination of the good and evil sides of Johnny's psyche.

Johnny -- who has risen to fame as a sort of Evil Knievel-esque motorcycle daredevil -- enjoys the strength that his new power brings, even as he is forced to do the devil's bidding, returning escaped souls to hell. He enjoys the power that comes with seeking vengeance and doling out righteous retribution. It's just that his boss is kind of a wretch. In another world, one could easily imagine him coming home to his suburban wife after a long day's work, complaining, "Mephistopheles made me work overtime for the third week in a row -- without time-and-a-half. And he's not giving me vacation time for Christmas, either! Says he's gonna need me too much around the holidays...I do the best I can but he never likes any of my ideas...I should ask for a raise."

The ubiquitous Mephistopheles is played by Peter Fonda, who has just the right shade of leathery tan to play such a demon. But I fear he was hired for the sole reason of uttering the line, "That sure is a nice bike" as he takes a gander at Johnny Blaze's chopper. Congratulations, Mark Steven Johnson: You've seen Easy Rider. You made a clever reference to it. Is that all you got?

Unfortunately, it is. He doesn't do anything with Peter Fonda. The guy just stands there looking leathery and evil.

In fact, the movie doesn't do much with any of its actors. In a terrible performance, Eva Mendes is the childhood love interest-turned-TV reporter who re-connects with Johnny and has to discover his secret the hard way. Her role consists mostly of standing in front of the camera with two buttons too few. I'm not complaining, but come on...

And did you ever wonder what ever happened to the creepy neighbor with the video camera from American Beauty? Well, this is what happened to him: He got to be the main villain in a bad comic book movie. Playing Blackheart -- who is trying to get his hands on some ancient scroll that will give him the power of 1,000 evil souls, or some such nonsense -- he gets to chew as much scenery as he likes. It's like a buffet. Blackheart is embroiled in some sort of underworld power struggle with Mephistopheles, but his villainous nature is so ham-fisted it's laughable. When he makes his big entrance -- at a saloon, of course -- he doesn't say or do anything clever, he just kills the guy on the porch for the sole purpose of showing off a special effect. He doesn't even look cool when he does it -- he just looks like one of those annoying goth kids from junior high.

But that's not a surprise, coming from Mark Steven Johnson. He doesn't seem to care how good the whole movie is -- as long as he can use it as a showcase from some impressive special effects, that's all that matters. He could have had an interesting superhero/Western hybrid -- I mean, he's already got Sam Elliott narrating, so he's practically halfway there. But it's as if he's unaware of what actually goes into making a movie.

A word about the film's star, Nicolas Cage: This is another one in a long line of films in which I legitimately feel sorry for him, as hard as he's trying to salvage something interesting out of this mess. But he's used to this; he does it all the time. He's made a career out of doing big-budget action movies that make boatloads of money, and then turning around and doing smaller fare that gives him a little more room to breathe. For every Con/Air, there's a Leaving Las Vegas, or Adaptation. For every Gone in 60 Seconds, there is a Bringing Out the Dead or The Weather Man. Hopefully, Ghost Rider means there's something great on the horizon.

Read more by Chris Bellamy


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