Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Ghost Rider (2007)

Director: Mark Steven Johnson

Watching Nicolas Cage in this role is like watching a child gleefully play with an empty box. At first, it’s cute. After about a half hour, you might get a little worried and start periodically checking on him out of the corner of your eye. But after two full hours, you’d want to snatch that box up and hide it in a locked closet forever. Cage was originally the frontrunner to play Superman in the character’s next big-screen incarnation a few years ago. After those negotiations fell through, he did the best he could with his consolation prize, Ghost Rider. I don’t want to be hard on Nicolas Cage, who appears on screen to be going through some sort of mid-life crisis. I DO, however, want to be hard on Ghost Rider as a hole. And no, I didn’t use the wrong “hole” there. Ghost Rider is an H-O-L-E hole; a bottomless pit; a tourist trap designed to attract slack-jawed yokels who inevitably use it as their own personal trashcan and/or outhouse.

Johnny Blaze (Cage) is a rich and famous Evel Knievil-style stunt motorcyclist. Even though Johnny’s rich and famous, he still lives a bad part of town, probably in an effort to stay in touch with “the people.” You know, the same people who will undoubtedly mug him at knife or gunpoint as soon as he ventures out to get some milk. Eva Mendes’ cleavage plays Johnny’s misguided love interest, Roxanne. As a boy, Johnny sold his soul to the devil, Mephistopheles (Peter Fonda), in exchange for his father being healed of cancer. Unfortunately, Johnny’s father dies the following day performing a motorcycle jump. Man, if you can't trust the Devil, who can you trust? Reeling and heartbroken, Johnny leaves his carnival stunt-riding career and childhood girlfriend, Roxanne, in the dust as he takes off for an uncertain future alone. With a devil on his shoulder, Johnny has, over the years, received fame and glory for his risk-taking stunts and unbelievable luck. That’s where the villains come in. A vampire-ish demon named Blackheart (Wes Bentley) has come to Earth with three super-powered cronies in tow. Defecting from the Devil (which arguably could be considered good), he sets out to find an ancient scroll, which turns out to be a contract. Maybe it’s Nicolas Cage’s contract. If so, burn it!! With possession of the contract, Blackheart hopes to create “hell on Earth.” Instead, he creates hell on screen. It sort of undercuts the villain’s supposedly immense power when he can’t even find a sheet of paper. The Devil now enlists Johnny to become his next "Ghost Rider" in order to stop Blackheart, since the Devil's powers are weakened on Earth -- just go with it. He does this even though Ghost Riders have a reputation for being less than model employees. The story is like something out of a lame action flick (minus the action) at this point. The contract has no significance other than to be a physical representation of the plot. There's the plot over there!! Let's go!! Now the villain has the plot! Let's go over there!! Now Ghost Rider has the plot!! Let's go back that way!!

The cops in this movie are always after Ghost Rider… and with just cause. The guy’s an asshole. He destroys property left and right, like a flaming bulldozer careening through the streets. He attacks the police officers before they even get a chance to do anything. Shouldn’t the “hero” be falsely accused or something like that, so that we can empathize with him and be thrilled when he’s ultimately vindicated? I was rooting for the police in this movie. Get that psycho-moron off the streets! Can you imagine waking up the next morning and seeing your smoldering wreck of a car overturned outside your house, and the cause of it was Ghost Rider. Well, if it was damaged in an epic battle between good and evil, wherein Ghost Rider was in the midst of saving the planet, I guess it’s acceptable; collateral damage, right? Unfortunately, Ghost Rider inadvertently destroyed your vehicle while he was simply screwing around on his motorcycle. Turns out Ghost Rider is no different than a drunken uncle. Ghost Rider’s main superpower is his “Penitence Stare,” wherein he gazes into the eyes of criminals and makes them see and feel the pain their victims experienced. Although that may sound good on paper, on screen it’s hard to make a staring contest into an exciting action sequence. The action is non-existent in an almost criminal way. They introduce the baddies, who have superpowers relating to the elements (i.e. a water guy, and an air guy), but can't figure out how to use them. These characters could engage in some really interesting and thrilling battles now that special effects have become nearly immaculate in today’s films. Even in today’s box office bombs, you can still marvel at their flawlessly integrated visuals. Ghost Rider is geared towards those with Attention Deficit Disorder, though. During the action scenes, they forget a crucial element: we need to know where everything and everyone is in relation to everything and everyone else. Zoom out, for the love of God! Ghost Rider looks cool, but is he fighting a villain off screen or sorting papers? I can’t tell… I see his shoulder moving.

The big, all-encompassing problem Ghost Rider has is that it’s ridiculously one-dimensional. Johnny and Roxanne’s relationship starts and stops without any prompting. They’re together. Johnny leaves for several YEARS. They meet up again and arrange dinner. Johnny stands her up. She falls in love with him. As kids, they carved their initials into a giant tree in a field (you heard me), and that even figures into the final scene. I really thought I’d seen the last of that tree. Johnny’s got a chubby, comic-relief sidekick (Donal Logue), an elderly and wise mentor (Sam Elliot), and lame villains who wander through the movie like lost children in a shopping mall. Ghost Rider's catch-phrases are interchangeable with those of any other generic superhero. Johnny finds out that he can control his powers and other general plot crap by reading some of the most coherent Biblical texts that have ever existed. Also, the humor is so flat that it’s translucent. I’d like to present to the court exhibit A: When Johnny stands Roxanne up at a restaurant, Roxanne consults a “Magic Eight-Ball” that she pulls from beneath the table (who is she, Carrot Top?), gulps down gallons of wine, and asks the waiter if he thinks she’s pretty. Are these jokes? I couldn’t tell. The humor on display in this film is so bizarre, wherein the jokes raise multiple questions instead of eliciting laughter. I don’t think these could even be considered jokes. They’re more like dramatic reenactments of jokes. This is a bad movie, and I didn’t even get into Peter Fonda playing the Devil. This movie works better as a poster. I wish I could use that nifty little "Penitence Stare" trick on writer/director Mark Steven Johnson. Then maybe he would experience the torment and agony he caused those who actually sat through this film. Guilty!!

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