Monday, February 19, 2007

Ghost Rider/ * (PG-13)

Johnny Blaze/Ghost Rider: Nicolas Cage
Roxanne Simpson: Eva Mendes
Blackheart: Wes Bentley
Mack: Donal Logue
Mephistopheles: Peter Fonda
Caretaker: Sam Elliott

Columbia Pictures presents a film written and directed by Mark Steven Johnson. Running time: 114 min. Rated PG-13 (for horror violence and disturbing images).

For the past couple of years, I’ve been going through this phase where every three or four months I pick up an old AC/DC album on CD. Unlike my brother, I was never a superfan of that Australian rock group when we were growing up. (I think he had every album up to “Who Made Who”, which served as the soundtrack to the Stephen King-helmed bomb “Maximum Overdrive”.) Still, for whatever reason, I just love listening to them lately.

The thing about AC/DC is that they really aren’t a very diverse rock band. Their recent albums are pretty much interchangeable with everything they put out in the eighties. But there is some primal nerve they can just naturally tap into. It brings me back to the simpler times of adolescence. A time when I could stand in my room, play some air guitar and feel like I’d accomplished something worthwhile. A time when the most important thing in the world was to be cool. A time when I might have actually enjoyed a film like “Ghost Rider”.

“Ghost Rider” contains a lot of “cool” images. First of all, the character itself is just badass looking, with the leather jacket and chaps, the heavy duty chain wrapped around his torso, the flaming skull for a head. And his bike is the bitchin’est ride on two wheels… two flaming wheels! And those bone-shaped chrome handle bars and that chopper frame. Damn! That guy looks baaaaaaaad! And it is all here to relish on a thirty-foot screen.

And there’s other cool stuff to see. Like the way Peter Fonda, as Mephistopheles, invokes the motorcycle vibe of “Easy Rider” simply with his presence. Or the way he and his on-screen son, Blackheart (Wes Bentley, “American Beauty”), sometimes become transparent with their anger and their deformed vampyric skulls can be seen through their skin. Or the way Blackheart can drain his victims’ essence with a mere touch. Or the way Blackheart’s posse exhibits the properties of the elements they personify; one can barely hold his eyes on his face because he drips so profusely with water, another’s skin is eternally cracked like a water-starved dessert, and the air elemental barely exists as even a head most of the time.

Even Nicolas Cage as Johnny Blaze oozes cool before he discovers his Ghost Rider alter ego. He never locks his door. He listens to the furthest band there could be from AC/DC, The Carpenters, and it still seems cool. And he is a stunt motorcyclist, like Evil Knievel. Damn! I thought Knievel was the coolest guy in the world when I was a kid. There is even that foreshadowing shot of his face turning into a skull during a lightning strike.

While it is possible to just flip through a comic book and drool over the artwork, a motion picture depends upon more than just individual images. And it is in the storytelling and writing that this film becomes decidedly uncool.

Perhaps the biggest mistake in the screenplay comes with writer/director Mark Steven Johnson’s notion that this character requires some sort of romance to make him interesting. Much like his previous comic book adaptation “Daredevil”, the romance here seems to lack adult supervision. Johnny Blaze still has a thing for his teenage sweetheart Roxanne, played by Eva Mendes (“2 Fast 2 Furious”). Although years have passed since Johnny left Roxanne waiting for him in the rain under an oak tree, their romance still operates at a high school level.

The dialogue epitomizes the notion of unintended hilarity. Dipping all too frequently into the superhero cliché bucket, Johnson comes up with such winning lines as, “You should be taking a dirt nap after that ragdoll today,” and “I’m the only one who can walk in both worlds. I’m the… (pause for effect) Ghost Rider!” Actually, there are better (or rather worse) ones in there, but I was too busy rolling my eyes to jot them down.

I can’t imagine Cage’s motives, appearing in this clunker. Frankly, I was amazed he stayed with this long-delayed project, especially after master superhero script scribe David S. Goyer (“Batman Begins”) decided to forgo another writing credit to executive produce this one. Surely Cage can’t have much of a desire to appeal to the strictly teen audience this movie is geared toward after such challenging work in a film like “World Trade Center”. There are moments in his performance when he barely even seems to be awake.

But back to my AC/DC obsession. The thing about my infatuation with those Aussies is that one time through an album will do me for quite a few weeks. I generally listen to them when I need to escape all my adult problems and just rock out. There is no substance to my relationship with the band. Like “Ghost Rider”, they exist purely on a juvenile level. And what is truly scary is that “Maximum Overdrive” may actually be a better film than this one. At least it had AC/DC on the soundtrack.

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