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Ghost Rider (2007)
At what point did the makers of “Ghost Rider” decide, “Ah, fuck it”? When they hired Nicholas Cage instead of Eric Bana? When Cage began playing Elvis playing Johnny Blaze and no one said shit? When they hired writer-director Mark Steven Johnson, who was hot off his abysmal 2003 version of “Daredevil”?
Or was it when they read the source material?
“Ghost Rider” was part of that awful wave of horror-hero hybrids from Marvel Comics in the 1970s, a wave that began when the Comics Code Authority, which was rapidly losing its authority, allowed traditional horror characters back into comics. As a result, Marvel, which 10 years earlier had reinvented the superhero genre with Spider-Man, X-Men, and the Fantastic Four, was suddenly offering its version of creature-feature night: “Tomb of Dracula,” “Swamp Thing,” “Werewolf by Night,” “Son of Satan,” and, yes, “Ghost Rider,” in which a motorcycle stuntman named Johnny Blaze turns into a superpowerful, hell-spawned demon with a flaming skull, and rides around town doing … whatever it is he does. Does he fight crime or fight the Devil? Or both? I’m not sure because I never read the damned thing.
A friend of mine did. What I thought was schlock—flaming skulls, chains and leather, chopper motorcycles—he thought was cool. This has been the basic disagreement between fans and non-fans ever since. What’s cool? What’s schlock? The makers of “Ghost Rider,” knowing they would never appeal to people like me, decided to double-down on schlock. They give us carneys and cowboys and yee-ha rubes and bounty hunters for the Devil and Eva Mendes doing newscasts in a tight, cleavage-baring shirt and Nicholas Cage doing Elvis doing Johnny Blaze. They give us ripostes that make Schwarzenegger’s seem scripted by Shakespeare:
Criminal: Have mercy!
Ghost Rider (low growl): Sorry! All out of mercy!
The movie is more plothole than story. Young Johnny Blaze (Matt Long) is about to ditch his father and their carney motorcycle act for true love, his sweetheart Roxanne (Raquel Alessi), for whom he carves initials into the only tree visible for miles. Except the cough Dad has? Cancer, dude. Totally. But in walks the Devil (Peter Fonda) with a proposition: Dad’s health for Johnny’s soul. While Johnny is thinking about it, oops, a drop of his blood spills on the contract. Apparently this makes it a done deal. Hardly seems fair to me, let alone legal. Isn’t there a lawyer Johnny could’ve hired? Blaze v. Mephistopheles. Who wouldn’t take that case? The arguments over jurisdiction alone would make a career.
The Devil being the Devil, which is to say devilish, cures Barton Blaze’s cancer but causes him to die in a motorcycle crash the same day. Doesn’t Johnny die, too, at the crossroads where the Devil lives? The contract has now been rushed into effect and the Devil issues a warning: “Forget about friends, forget about family, forget about love. You’re mine now, Johnny Blaze.”
At which point he disappears for 20 years.
During that time, Johnny (now Nick Cage) forgets about family, forgets about love, but gains fame as the Evel Knievel of his generation. He jumps everything—cars, trucks, helicopters—because he doesn’t fear death. Why should he? He doesn’t even know if he’s alive. But in his dressing room, with his friend, Mack (Donal Logue), he broods about second chances. Then he cranks the Carpenters. A nice bit, actually. My favorite bit in the movie.
At this point, Roxanne (now Eva Mendes) re-enters his world as a pushy TV reporter with a push-up bra and a bit of attitude for the way Johnny ditched her. But persistence wins her over again and they make a date. Unfortunately, and from the Dept. of Insane Coincidences, this is the very moment that the Devil’s son, Blackheart (poor Wes Bentley, who once seemed so promising), in defiance of his father, enters the world to take it over. The Devil can’t stop him (for some reason) but Johnny can (for some reason), which is why, instead of the date with the girl he ditched 20 years earlier because he’d become the Devil’s rider, he finally becomes, for the first time, the Devil’s rider. His body starts smoking, Cage starts overacting, and eventually his face bursts into a flaming skull. This initial transformation is long and traumatic but subsequent changes become smoother as the plot necessitates.
As for what brings Blackheart here? For that, backstory.
You see, there was another ghost rider before Johnny, a cowboy in the 19th century who was instructed to bring the Devil a contract claiming a thousand souls in the town of San Venganza. But he knew this contract would make the Devil too powerful so he reneged on the deal and galloped away and hid the contract. And that’s what Blackheart is after: the contract containing the lost souls of San Venganza.
- How can anyone escape the Devil?
- How does anyone hide something from the Devil?
- Is Blackheart related to Daimon Hellstrom? How about Little Nicky?
In his quest, Blackheart gathers minions of his own, ghouls with long dark coats and long scraggly hair who can hide in the elements—there a sand guy, a water guy and a wind guy—and they leave a trail of dead bodies in their search for the contract. When Johnny shows up, Blackheart sics all three minions on him at once. Kidding. That would be too logical. They attack him one at a time so he can defeat them one at a time and lengthen out the movie.
But let’s fast-forward to one of the dumbest scenes in movie history. After his first transformation, Johnny wakes in a church graveyard, where a good-natured Texan named Caretaker (Sam Elliott), whose voiceover explained the San Venganza backstory to us at the beginning of the movie, relays this selfsame backstory to Johnny. You’d never guess it, if you were a moron, but Caretaker turns out to be the original Ghost Rider. And when Blackheart takes Roxanne prisoner in the town of San Venganza, Caretaker whistles for his horse, Johnny whistles for his motorcycle, and both, in defiance of the movie’s internal logic, and without seeming pain, burst into flame-skulled ghost riders and ride across the Texas plains together as “(Ghost) Rider of the Sky” plays on the soundtrack.
Wait, it gets better. At the outskirts of San Venganza, Caretaker suddenly pulls up. He says adios. He says, “I could only change one more time and I saved it for this.” For ... the ride? Why didn’t you save it for the fight? Wouldn’t that have made more sense? Seriously, dude, pull your head out of your ass.
I admit I’m no fan of this character. Ghost Rider gets his powers from the ultimate source of evil yet somehow isn’t controlled by that evil. There should be this ongoing tension between Johnny and the Devil, this “Devil and Daniel Webster” brand of one-upmanship, but we never get that. We don’t get close to that. Instead, we get exchanges like this:
Johnny: I sure wish things could’ve turned out different.
Roxanne: No. This is what you were meant to be.
Cool, schlock, whatever. Did they have to make it so blisteringly stupid?
January 31, 2012
© 2012 Erik Lundegaard