Reviews of trade paperbacks of comic books (mostly Marvel), along with a few other semi-relevant comments / reviews.

27 February 2007

Ghost Rider: Sound and Fury, Signifying Nothing

The advance of special effects technology is the worst thing that could happen to the Ghost Rider movie.

You see, if there weren’t any special effects — or if the special effects were more difficult or expensive — then director and screenwriter Mark Steven Johnson would have had to come up with some sort of plot. Unfortunately, Johnson didn’t have to: Ghost Rider is merely a collection of effects, sets, and very brief fights. The motorcycle-riding protagonist zooms from one to another withouth having to slow down much for plot points, characterization, or making a whole hell of a lot of sense.

The story, based on the Marvel comic book of the same name, stars Nick Cage as Johnny Blaze, motorcycle stunt rider who sold his soul as a teenager to save his father from cancer. The devil (Mephistopheles, actually, played by Peter Fonda) gypped Johnny, as Satanic beings are wont to do, so Johnny tries to master the terror of knowing ol’ Scratch might call for him at any moment . For this reason, he casts away his teenage love, Roxanne, played as an adult by Eva Mendez. For his part, the life of Mephistopheles isn’t all pleasant blazes and exciting deals; his son, Blackheart, has gathered a trio of villains to find a mystical contract hidden away from Mephistopheles that gives him title to a thousand souls. To stop his son, Mephistopheles transforms Johnny into the demonic-looking Ghost Rider, Mephistopheles’s bounty hunter and general errand boy, during the night.

Ghost Rider poster And that’s where the movie falls down, really. There’s a good movie in there, with Johnny battling with the devil — and himself — for his soul. You or I could probably find an interesting story, perhaps with Mephistopheles tempting Johnny with a chance to regain his lost love. Instead, it’s a race to find some hidden infernal McGuffin that does ... something. I’m not sure what, or why a contract for 1,000 souls equates to personal power. If you’re stockpiling souls, well, then you want that contract. But otherwise ... and for the ostensible Lord of Lawyers, Mephistopheles has a shaky grasp of contract law; for some reason, the contract is a bearer object, giving power to whomever has it, rather than just specifying Mephistopheles gets the souls.

How bad is this movie? More than bad enough. The FX Ghost Rider is stiff and delivers the most hackneyed lines in comics history — little more than dressed up catch phrases that aren’t catchy. Blackheart looks like Hal Sparks in clown white, and while that’s unsettling, it’s hardly my idea of supernatural evil. His henchmen look cool, but it takes Ghost Rider only a minute or so to dispatch the three demons, putting them at the level of video-game level bosses. When a hood stabs Ghost Rider, Johnny needs stitches, but Johnny suffers no ill effects when one of the demon hits Ghost Rider with a semi or when the SWAT team decides to use Ghost Rider as the object of a live ammunition test. Johnny’s attempts to control his demonic power are boiled down to a general sentence in a book and five seconds of concentration. Mephistopheles’s law follies continue when he considers Johnny to have signed a demonic contract when Johnny accidentally bleeds on the paper, but when he wants Johnny to pursue Blackheart, he offers to let Johnny out of the contract if he defeats Blackheart. Why have a contract if you’re going to bargain with your employees’ every time you want them to do anything? And why does the previous Ghost Rider, a cowboy from the 19th century, ride across the desert with the Blaze Ghost Rider to his final confrontation with Blackheart, then give him a shotgun and leave? Couldn’t he have done something in the final fight?

It’s very frustrating, and those complaints are just the beginning. I mean, this is a movie that doesn’t realize how far it is from one goalpost on a football field to the other; the movie keeps insisting it’s 300 feet (not yards, in which a football field is usually measured, but feet). It’s actually 360 feet — the goalposts are 10 yards behind the goal lines.

Cage is the most enjoyable part of the movie. He does his level best, making the good scenes work as well as could be expected and trying to rise above the worst of the writing. There are times when his acting seems more risible than respectable — while he transforms into Ghost Rider the first time, he seems to be suffering an epileptic seizure while his joints freeze — but his dedication to the project shows. Unfortunately, Mendes isn’t given much to do as Roxy Simpson, Johnny’s once and future love. Peter Fonda as Mephistopheles is a neat idea, especially since the motorcycle Mephistopheles gives to his new Ghost Rider is very similar to the one Fonda rode in Easy Rider. Fonda plays the Tempter with a quiet reserve, which is quite a change from the vicious scenery chomping of Wes Bentley (Blackheart). Unfortunately, the role doesn’t give Fonda much room to work with, and the script doesn’t really show how evil Mephistopheles is — compared to Blackheart, he’s practically a white hat.

This is part of Johnson’s blind spot: he doesn’t know how to show the evil and menace of his antagonists. He thinks quick flashes of the character’s faces, glimpses of their skeletal structure, and cranking up the reverb on their voices makes a character frightening; actually, it makes them freakish. Blackheart kills repeatedly, which does show he’s evil, and his resistance to Ghost Rider’s powers shows he’s soulless. But there’s no nuance and no craft there — he just kills everything in his way, which is boring, and his fight with Ghost Rider isn’t all that interesting anyway. Mephistopheles just speaks softly and asks Johnny to kill the evil demon, which makes him slightly sympathetic. (Yeah, I know he damned 1,000 souls a century ago in San Venganzas, but we don’t see any of that, and hey, maybe they weren’t very nice people to begin with.)

All the blame must lie at the feet of Johnson, who wrote and directed this roadburn of a picture. (He also wrote and directed Daredevil and managed to get someone to agree to let him write some part of Elektra.) There’s a good visual here, and the actors involved aren’t hopelss. But what arrived on the screen is impossible to take seriously on any level and possible to enjoy only as a farce.

Rating: 1 of 5

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