Review: Ghost Rider

When "X-Men" hit the box office jackpot, every studio wanted their own superhero franchise. They've already burned through Superman, Batman, and even more X-Men adventures to wonderful results. All that's left are the B-list characters, and there's little reason for some of these champions of justice to see the glory of the big screen. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you "Ghost Rider" (IMDb listing).

As a young stunt motorcycle rider, Johnny Blaze (Nicolas Cage) sold his soul to the Devil (Peter Fonda) to save his father from a slow death. Now older, the Devil has come back to honor the contract. Blaze must now become Ghost Rider, a leather-clad flaming skeleton who collects all the lost souls that escaped hell. On the list are Blackheart (Wes Bentley, "American Beauty") and his minions, who want to bring a whole lot of trouble to humanity. Racing to stop Blackheart, Blaze's life becomes even more complicated when old flame Roxanne (Eva Mendes) enters his life again.

Director Mark Steven Johnson has been down this superhero highway before, with 2003's "Daredevil." Call me a closet fan of the Affleck-in-red-leather epic, but the picture was fun in a pop music sort of way, with a grim tone and a frightening amount of reverence paid to the character. It wasn't high art or even worthy of superhero genre bigness, but it was engaging where it counted.

Johnson's comic book antennae gets a little tangled up with "Ghost Rider." You can sense his enthusiasm with the project; every inch of Johnny Blaze is covered to a point of fetishism, and that detail-oriented filmmaking gets the picture off to a captivating start. Blaze's daredevil stunts are the high points of the film. They're the few moments not riddled with special effects, relying on Cage's loopy sense of humor and glossy photography to transport the viewer inside this peculiar world of bravery and hellfire.

Once Blaze becomes the Ghost Rider, Johnson runs the film right into the wall.

The special effect of the flaming skull and Blaze's "Hellcycle" are appealing creations, but they lack a human element that this picture is dying for. All too often, the film will push aside the relationships of the character and the depth of Blaze's troubles for CGI efforts that range from decent to lacking in dimension. The effects tend to mask the awesome power of the Rider, and more critically, Blaze's torment. Johnson directs the moments of transformation like a videogame, one without decent villains or much purpose outside of the title character's very appearance.

Nicolas Cage does what Nicolas Cage does when faced with a script like this: he pushes it to fit his quirks. Gobbling jellybean martinis or soaking up the sounds of The Carpenters, Cage is the film's only sense of impulse, and I liked him in the role. It's a shame there's nobody else here who could match up with his impish behavior.

The supporting cast is left for dead by Johnson. Poor Eva Mendes has to compete with her own cleavage half the time (she loses ... often), and Peter Fonda makes for an unconvincing Beelzebub. It's Wes Bentley who really blows his part, turning what should be all powerful terror into a reading that almost kisses parody, and is downright laugh-inducing when he pushes the pinkie-in-mouth, "Bwhahahha!" villain level up to 11. It's an atrocious piece of acting in a film that can't work without someone of unique weight in the role. It's pretty much up to Cage to save the film, but alas, the actor is replaced by a flaming skull for a good chunk of the picture.

Johnson works up a fragrant spaghetti western overtone with his locales and the very appearance of Sam Elliott as Blaze's graveyard mentor. It's a neat tonal turn that the film could've used more of, but it doesn't register when used against the unbridled employment of artificial visuals. "Ghost Rider" isn't a bad film as much as it an unnecessary one. Not every superhero needs their moment in the multiplex, and "Ghost Rider" is a good example why.

Filmfodder Grade: C