Wednesday, July 11, 2007

An uninspired 'ride' through comic book cliche

“Over the last decade “X-Men,” “Spider-Man” and “Batman Begins” raised the bar of what could be done in a comic book movie. These films placed as much importance on character and story as lavish special effect set pieces. The same can not be said of “Ghost Rider.”

With most of the bigger comic book titles already gracing the screen, studios are desperate for any book with brightly colored panels and people talking in bubbles. But for every “V for Vendetta” or “Sin City” there are numerous duds like “Ghost Rider.”

There is little to distinguish “Ghost Rider” from the flood of comic book adaptation on the market. Its story is predictable and dull. The love interest, in the form of curvy Eva Mendes, is stuck in a romantic subplot that is poorly inked in from other, more interesting movies. To top it off the effects are cheap looking and not even on par with standards from a decade ago.

Nicolas Cage stars as Johnny Blaze, a stunt bike rider who sells his soul to the devil (Peter Fonda) to heal his father’s cancer. Of course this being the devil, there is a dirty trick to the deal. With his soul signed over to the devil Johnny will become the Ghost Rider whenever the devil calls upon him. With the help of a mysterious caretaker (Sam Elliot in cowboy autopilot), Johnny rebels and goes hero instead of minion.

Fonda’s casting is a knowing nod to “Easy Rider,” Fonda’s best known film and probably the best biker movie ever made. The idea of Fonda as the film’s main villain is enticing and Fonda reads his dialogue with flare, but his screen time is limited.

"Ghost Rider" instead must do battle with Blackheart (Wes Bentley), the devil’s son, who has gathered some of hell’s demons to takeover for his old man and bring hell to earth. Bentley, who showed such promise in “American Beauty,” is a completely unthreatening villain and boring to watch.

The only thing that holds the thing together is Cage, in one of his more charismatic performances as far as this sort of fare goes. Cage is a hit or miss performer, a talented actor who has a tendency to appear in films beneath his abilities. As Johnny Blaze he brings some flavor to the film. His dialogue delivery walks the fine line of winking and sincerity and he does a nice job fleshing out the underdeveloped tortured soul aspect of Johnny.

The problem is once Johnny turns into Ghost Rider, Cage is replaced with a flaming skeleton special effect that is cool looking for about a minute and then sort of ho-hum the rest of the time. Cage’s voice is replaced with a garbled, demon voice that is at time incomprehensible.

The action scenes are not particularly exciting. Ghost Rider riding about on his flaming bike is fun, but the ghouls he must battle are pathetic looking. It is clear most of the money went to creating the visuals for the Ghost Rider character. The villains look like they were thrown in as an after thought and are poorly conceived CGI creations.

Writer/director Mark Steven Johnson adds some nice touches such as Johnny’s routine of listening to the Carpenters before one of his deadly jumps and his habit of drinking martini glasses full of jelly beans. These little details add a fleeting sense of character to the film, but they quickly become swallowed up in the routine of the story. Johnson is already promising another ride for “Ghost Rider.” Perhaps it is Johnson that made a pact with the devil.

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