Saturday, February 17, 2007

Movie Review: Ghost Rider

Being a big comic book reader/collector, I have always been wary every time one of my beloved comic book characters gets translated from the four color pages into the big screen medium. Comic book characters have never been the easiest material to work into the 100 plus minute film format as each characters usually have years of story continuity and history that made up what fans love about them. In the wrong hands, it could very easily degenerate into a unwatchable mess as proven before by “Catwoman” which was arguable the worst comic book film known to man. However with the success of the Spiderman, X-Men and Blade franchises, it seems that everyone wanted a piece of the action and license other bankable characters to be turned into a movie in hopes that they would be met with similar success. The latest of the comic book characters to make the transition from printed page to film is “Ghost Rider”.

In the recently released film, directed by Mark Steven Johnson who also directed the less then stellar “Daredevil”, a young stunt cyclist Johnny Blaze (Matt Long) discovered that his stunt partner father was dying from cancer. It was at that moment when a stranger came to the carnival where he was performing to offer a cure for his father’s cancer in exchange for young Blaze’s soul. After inavertedly signing the deal, Johnny found his father miraculously cured of his cancer only to be killed shortly after in a stunt seemingly orchestrated by the stranger. Feeling the guilt that his deal sealed his father’s fate, Johnny left the carnival and his teenage lady love to hit the road and find redemption for himself.

Fast forward a couple of years, an much older Johnny Blaze (Nicolas Cage) was more of a stunt cyclist than his father ever was. Famous and adored for his death defying motorcycle stuns, Johnny seemed to be living a charmed life until the stranger from his past reappear to claim his soul. It turned out that the stranger was actually Mephistopheles (Peter Fonda), who might be the Devil or an aspect of the fallen angel, and he was there to recruit Johnny to become his demonic bounty hunter known as “Ghost Rider”. The Ghost Rider was needed to prevent his wayward son, Blackheart (Wes Bentley), from obtaining an object of power that would allow him to usurp his father’s position of power.

Also reappearing in Johnny’s life at that particular time was Roxanne Simpson (Eva Mendes), his teenage sweetheart that he left behind after his father died, who was now a television reporter doing a feature about him. Thorn between his reignited attraction to her and his nocturnal activities as the “Ghost Rider”, Johnny soon finds himself in dire predicaments. With the help of a mysterious Caretaker (Sam Elliott), Johnny tries to harness the power of Ghost Rider to defeat Blackheart before he became a bigger threat to humanity than his father.

In the original comic book universe, there were actually 3 people who used the name “Ghost Rider”. Johnny Blaze was actually the 2nd person who used it, being preceded by Carter Slade and subsequently followed by Danny Ketch. I am more familiar with the 3rd Ghost Rider comics as I collected them when they first came out. The Johnny Blaze “Ghost Rider” comics were before my time and for most of the issue that I managed to read, it felt a little more campy than what I am used to relative to the darker 3rd iteration of the character.

After saying that, the “Ghost Rider” in this film came off as an amalgamation of the 2nd and 3rd version of the comic book character. They even put in the 1st “Ghost Rider” in as a character for good measure but unfortunately it helps little to make the film representation of the character any more engaging. Although I have to admit that to see the character on screen was fairly exciting, it felt a little empty as viewers would have seen most of what this CGI character could do in the film from the previously released trailers. Viewers do get to see the result of money that they poured in to the CGI effects for Ghost Rider which accidentally was also the reason why this film’s released date was pushed back from the earlier date planned in 2006. Unfortunately, the payoff for waiting to see this character on screen was diluted by having too little that was not already shown previously.

Nicholas Cage as Johnny Blaze was just simply the wrong person and much too old to be cast for the role. Being a comic collector himself, I expected him to have some level of reverence for the character and awareness of the fans expectations of how character was being portrayed. His choice to play the character as a quirky and campy caricature of the original comic book character was highly disappointing to me. Every time the film character was shown kicking back by listening to the Carpenters and downing M&M cocktails (since alcohol gave him nightmares), the knife twisted a bit more inside me as they desecrated a perfectly good comic book character. The absence of the quest for redemption that made the original character intriguing was sorely missed in the storyline of this film.

To add salt to the wound, there was hardly any chemistry between Cage and Eva Mendes who played the love interest soon to be in peril. Mendes’s character was very superficially developed and would have be utterly forgettable had it not be for her own “superpower” of fitting into a number of cleavage highlighting outfits designed to distract viewers from the awful wreck of a movie that they were watching. It was not a good sign for the character when viewers couldn’t care less what happens to her when she inevitable got captured by the villain and needed to be saved by the hero.

The other characters in the film unfortunately fared no better that Mendes’s character. Wes Bentley’s turn as the film villain was so clunky that one would expect him to have a pencil thin mustache to twirl as he made his endless proclamations and innate dialogue reading. His three henchmen, fallen angels who had power over the elements of earth, wind and water, were unimaginatively written and ineffectually portrayed to be a foil to the Ghost Rider. Even the two more illustrious actors in this movie, Peter Fonda and Sam Elliot, can be faulted for seemingly phoning in their performances with their bland portrayal of Mephistopheles and Caretaker respectively.

“Ghost Rider” felt like a movie that doesn’t know what to make of itself. On one hand, it wanted to be campy and funny with Cage pulling his quirky mannerism and endless Elvis poses. On the other hand, it wanted to be taken seriously as an entrant into the list of comic book inspired movie. The resulting mess was not as bad as “Catwoman” but it came close to languishing in the “Batman and Robin” level of inane mediocrity. Based on the crowd I saw at the cinema when I watched this movie, I would think that this film would get a fairly reasonable opening week collection at least until word of mouth got passed around to tell people how unnecessary this film was. Fans of the comic book character should be forewarned before they watch this movie lest they experience the same anger and disappointment that I left the cinema with after watching how much unrealized potential in the character that this movie ignored. Other cinema goers would be well advised to save their money and watch “Dreamgirls” instead when it comes to our local cinemas next week.

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