Cage Match

Nic Cage’s skull is on fire and so is his motorbike in this comic book adaptation.

Ghost Rider
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Ghost Rider

Release year: 2007 Posted January 19, 2014

“My problem is that I took the whole thing too seriously. I should have had more fun with it, instead of all the psychodrama!”

Ang Lee on his approach to directing Hulk

You can’t really disparage a movie for being absurd when the comic book it’s based on is about a man who lost his soul in a bet and now works for the devil as a bounty hunter, transforming into a flaming skeleton and sending evil back to Hell with a molten length of chain. As Hunter S. Thompson would say, “You buy the ticket, you take the ride.”

But you can disparage this movie for not taking its own fantastical plot seriously. Selling your soul to Mephisto is scary. Losing your father to cancer is awful. Turning into a flaming skeleton is painful. In Ghost Rider, all these events are treated with equal amounts of casual disregard. They are just things that happen, reducing the magic of a comic book world to that of a movie like Juno, where actions have few consequences and there is nothing to fight for. It shouldn’t surprise Marvel Comics fans to learn that Ghost Rider was written and directed by Mark Stephen Johnson, the genius writer/director of Daredevil, another Marvel adaptation gone horribly wrong. (Mr. Johnson hasn’t written a screenplay since.)

Ghost Rider continues the upsetting tradition started by Ang Lee of trying to mimic the look and camp of a printed comic. I don’t want to see this—I want to see the spirit of the original work interpreted as a movie. A world that’s full of unbelievable things but remains grounded in its own reality is riveting. This is just some kind of pseudo-western where cliches are dropped like bombs and nobody cares about anything. It comes off as pandering. If you’re not willing to accept the suspension of disbelief necessary to enjoy comics, don’t bother adapting a comic property. The roll of your eyes will show up in every frame, as it does in Ghost Rider.

In the quote at the beginning of this review, Lee claims to regret taking the content of Hulk too seriously. I think Lee didn’t take it seriously enough. If it is possible to treat an absurd reality too seriously, explain the success of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. If you want an audience to follow your story, you have to believe in it as well. I’ll again point out the way Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer created a whole universe full of preposterous rules and facts, populated by realistic people whose actions had consequences. The result is a masterpiece of television writing.

Ghost Rider is even harder to watch when you know how much of a comic book enthusiast Nicolas Cage is in real life. This is a man who once owned a copy of Action Comics #1. He is also a man who loves motorcycles. Nic clearly has a passion for much of the content of the film, as he describes in this interview with a bald idiot. He also explicates some of the bizarre choices Johnny Blaze makes in Ghost Rider, making a few of the film’s arbitrary character traits are more palatable. Overall, Nic seems to be uncomfortable talking about it.

Cage throws lots of his acting skill into this movie. The above interview reveals the lengths he went to find motivations for his character’s actions. He emotes competently when he’s allowed to. He incorporates Johnny Blaze’s backstory into his characterization, and strikes a nice balance of Cage lunacy with grounded problem solving, and even brings out some of his ultra suave moves not seen in his films since the late ’80s. He, unlike Mark Johnson, fully believes in the batshit insane world of Johnny Blaze. You long for his figurative bridle to be removed and for the insanity of a flaming skeletal bounty hunter to shape his performance. It never does though, and I blame the impotent writing and direction for that. When we get to the implausibly good semi-sequel Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, you’ll see what I mean.

Nicolas Cage and Eva Mendes are an appealing on-screen couple. They are natural and comfortable together, which left me feeling like they were two old friends you always knew would end up together and finally did. Eva Mendes gets Cage as an actor. She’s even said: “I worked with Nic on Ghost Rider a couple years ago and we just get along. I love his weirdness. I think he’s very unique and weird and I love that. I’m also a fan of his earlier work like Vampire’s Kiss, Wild at Heart, so I knew that if I did this film with him and Werner, it was going to be a party.” Good for you, Eva. In that quote, “Werner” is Werner Herzog, and “this film” is the equally gonzo but infinitely better executed Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, which I cannot wait to revisit for this project.

Ultimately, Ghost Rider is a forgettable train wreck with little to redeem itself, despite a good cast and quality source material. Nic seems to have a habit of pouring his heart into a project that sinks to failure despite his will and efforts. Maybe this explains his marriage to Lisa Marie Presley?

Movie?
Awful
Nic Cage’s acting?
Good despite it all
Did his performance make the movie worse?
No, it was Mark Steven Johnson’s fault