At The Picture Show
Man on fire
Let 'Ghost Rider' be a lesson: Stop letting Mark Steven Johnson make movies
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
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
Read more by Chris Bellamy