The hero (or anti-hero) of “Ghost Rider” makes a Faustian bad deal with the devil, but it’s the audience that gets the worst of the bargain. Another of Marvel Comics lesser characters is dusted off and given the live-action feature treatment in this picture, and though the approach is rather different from previous efforts along those lines—the “Blade” series and “The Punisher”—in being jokier and less gloomily intense, the net effect is pretty much the same, which is to say: not good.
One might have predicted that from the fact that the adaptation is the work of writer-director Mark Steven Johnson, who earlier bungled the screen debut of a top-flight Marvel superhero, Daredevil. His take on this much less interesting figure is equally misguided. Nicolas Cage stars in the title role, the alter-ego of Johnny Blaze, an Evel Knievel lookalike who once sold his soul to the devil to cure his father (Brett Cullen) of cancer, even though the arrangement meant the end of his relationship with his girlfriend Roxanne (Eva Mendes)—and proved a nasty trick as far as his dad was concerned, too. Under the bargain, Johnny is bound to do the bidding of Mephistopheles (Peter Fonda) in the guise of Ghost Rider, a flaming skeleton who pursues escaped demons at night and destroys them in the devil’s name. His foe in this initial “origins” installment is Mephistopheles’ own rebellious son Blackheart (Wes Bentley), who enlists as his minions a quartet of other villains posing as Air, Earth, Fire and Water. Also involved is the Caretaker (Sam Elliott), a grizzled cowboy mentor for Johnny—the same sort of character that Kris Kristofferson played in “Blade”—as well as comic-relief motorcycle sidekick Mack (Donal Logue).
If you’re a fan of the Rider, you can call this scenario mythic. Otherwise you’ll think it remarkably silly, especially as Johnson has cobbled things together from the various incarnations of the character that have appeared over the years and then allowed Cage to add “kooky” bits of business to the mix (a predilection for the music of Karen Carpenter and jelly beans, for instance). And he proves no more adept in staging it than he was with “Daredevil.” The approach is less somber, but equally clunky and even less effective. With its garish effects, nonsensically incomprehensible storyline and juvenile stabs at humor, “Ghost Rider” joins Albert Pyun’s “Captain America” at the bottom of the Marvel barrel.
Cage does nothing to help matters; he gives us some of his typical gonzo moments, but otherwise is curiously bland and muted. He’s purportedly a big fan of Ghost Rider, just as he is of Superman (after all, he named his son Kal-El). But what he does with this part should make any fan breathe a sigh of relief that his much talked-about desire to play the Man of Steel, a far more iconic figure, was never realized. Bentley, who once seemed a promising young actor, makes a pallid villain, and an extraordinarily dull Fonda seems trapped in a part that would be much better suited to the lip-smacking histrionics of his old pal Dennis Hopper. As for Mendes, she’s completely wasted in a part that appears to be present only to serve as the requisite damsel in distress, and there’s zero chemistry between her and Cage. Even Logue, who can usually get a smile just by being around, is boring.
Comic movies, even from the best titles, are tricky to pull off. Those based on secondary and tertiary characters are even harder to make work, and Johnson certainly isn’t the person to do it. The verdict on “Ghost Rider” is: crappy comic, worse movie.