Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Ghost Rider (2007)

Part of the comic book industry's attempt to cash in on every license ever, it's the 2007 box office smash Ghost Rider that was panned by critics and forgotten about exactly two weeks after it came out!

Remember kids: don't do what Ghost Rider does

We start at a carnival, where Johnny Blaze is a carnie with a bad-ass name who is dating a way hot girl named Roxanne (Raquel Alessi as a teen, Eva Mendes as an adult). His dad runs the motorcycle show, but he's dying of cancer. Late that night while looking at his motorcycle, a mysterious stranger (Peter Fonda!) appears and is incredibly spooky, offering to make Blaze a deal. Despite about ten ominous signs, Johnny makes a deal with the devil. He wakes up the next morning to find his father in high spirits, his cancer mysteriously gone! Of course, wouldn't you know it, that very day, a freak accident occurs at the carnival stunt show, and Johnny's father is dead. Johnny ends up running into Peter Fonda, who tells him he needs to be alive for some later date, apparently making Johnny immortal for some nebulous future purpose.

Faust needed more motorcycles.

The camera zooms in on the young Johnny, and his eyes withers and age until he's Nic Cage! Tough break, kid! Blaze is now a world-famous stuntman who cashes in his dad's old career combined with his ability to never die. Cage, feeling the need to "quirk it up a notch," has Blaze eating jelly beans from a martini glass, laugh hysterically while watching anything with monkeys, and love the music of the Carpenters. I wish I had made that up.

Johnny Blaze in his element: watching monkeys, eating jellies, and listening to the Carpenters all at once!

While Johnny Blaze hams it up, Blackheart, played by that creepy kid from American Beauty (Wes Bentley) murders a bar full of bikers, apparently offended that a biker said "Angels Only." He assembles a super-team of freaky-ass demon guys based around the elements of earth, water and air, and turns into an even more hideous creature when someone mentions the name "Mephistopheles," apparently Fonda's name and Blackheart's father.

Johnny prepares for his stupidest stunt to date when he gets roped into an interview with a grown-up Roxanne, where he displays the sort of perspicacity and wit generally reserved for gold medal-winning swimmers. He makes the jump and asks out Roxanne after impressing her by nearly killing himself like ten times and inconveniencing hundreds of motorists.

Sorry ma'am, no novelties at the table.

Roxanne waits for Johnny at the hotel bar, then, in some attempt to keep up with Nic Cage, pulls out a magic eight ball at the dinner table. This 8-ball is never explained or mentioned again. Johnny gives himself a pep talk, when his hands start burning and he hears a motorcycle calling to him. We're 38 minutes in and he's still not Ghost Rider. That's like, 1/3 of the movie with zero Ghost Riders. Peter Fonda shows up and tells Johnny to destroy Blackheart. Just like that? No elaborate plan of attack? We get a transformation sequence where Johnny rides around town really fast, culminating in a joke where a dude with a radar gun watches the bike explode past him, shooting fire.

They cut the scene where he throws his hat to the ground in impotent rage. Also, that fire is the "Welcome to Texas" sign burning.

Nic Cage's face melts off he becomes Ghost Rider, a flaming skull biker pastiche with no personality. Somehow he must know where the demons are, because he shows up right on top of them and they get in a big dumb fight. He kills the earth demon then runs into a mugger, who he proceeds to murder using only his stare. That seems a little extreme.

Then morning comes, and Blaze painfully transforms back into Nicolas Cage (what is he, a vampire?!). He wakes up in a graveyeard, where the caretaker is SAM ELLIOTT(!). Elliott's job is to explain what the hell is going on, calling Blaze "The Ghost Rider," and explaining Ghost Rider's "penance stare," which "sears the soul of the wicked."

Ladies and gentlemen: Academy Award Winner Nicolas Cage!

Blaze meets up with Roxanne who blows him off and calls him a carny for missing their date. Blaze mugs in a mirror but then reads a book, and manages to shoot some fire out of his hand. But then Roxanne shows up at his flat, and he rudely refuses to offer her a martini glass full of jelly beans. She tries to make out with him, but he wigs out. She demands an explanation, and he says he sold his soul to the devil. For some reason she doesn't buy it.

She leaves, and a dozen cops show up for some reason. They think he killed the people in the biker bar for reasons that are not clear. I guess they got traces of his SKELETON at the scene with the mugger. That makes no sense! Nic Cage reacts to the presence of evil by ACTING as only he can. Even though you'd think a motorcycle stuntman would be a celebrity in jail, he gets attacked for no reason by a bunch of bad guys in the holding cell. After beating up most everyone, Ghost Rider points at the one black kid (who is unharmed) and pronounces him innocent. Ghost Rider: your source for racial commentary. On his way out, an overambitious cop nightsticks off Ghost Rider's jaw, which slightly annoys him. Why would you even hit a man who was just a skull that was on fire?!

"And this bag was, like, dancing with me."

The cops chase Ghost Rider while Blackheart has found some priest and is close to getting his macguffin: a thousand souls from some western town. Ghost Rider evades the police with his magic motorcycle and tracks down Blackheart and his demons. While he evades straight up a building, Roxanne sees his fiery outline and immediately realizes it's Blaze. The wind demon says "you cannot catch the wind" then immediately gets caught and dies. The police open fire on the flaming-headed demon and are surprised when it doesn't work. But Roxanne is there too, pouting and undoing buttons in her blouse to try to seduce the monster. Ever the voyeur, Blackheart watches her pining and tells his one remaining demon buddy that they'd found GR's weakness.

Blaze goes back to the graveyard to get more exposition from Sam Elliott while Roxanne reads William Blake and John Milton in Johnny's apartment, just waiting for Blackheart to show up and kidnap her. Ghost Rider shows up at at his flat, but Blackheart beats him down, turning him back into Nic Cage somehow, telling him to get the Macguffin and get it for Blackheart, or Roxanne dies. You know the drill. He goes back to Elliott who tells him "God is on his side." Betcha he doesn't show up in this movie. Elliott gets his horse, and reveals he is also a Ghost Rider (what is this, Highlander?). The two Ghost Riders race across the desert in glorious CGI, charring the desert and killing small lizards. Having brought Blaze this far, Elliott's Ghost Rider says he's gone as far as he can go, disappearing into nothingness. Some help you are, Sam Elliott!

If this was a real homage, Cage would've stood around staring for five minutes while dramatic music played.

Johnny brings the macguffin and meets up with Blackheart, and we get a couple of super-unnecessary zooms into Blaze's and Blackheart's eyes in an obvious homage to a long-titled Italian western. The two fight, but Blackheart tosses Ghost Rider into the sunlight, turning him back into Blaze. Blackheart uses the macguffin to swallow a bunch of demons, which apparently surprises him. What did he think would happen?! Blackheart is a whole lot bigger and nastier, and quotes bible verses. Or maybe he really wants to be called "Legion" now. Doesn't he know that's a completely separate trademark? Blaze tries holding off the now more powerful demon with Sam Elliott's shotgun, but to no avail. Trying her luck, Roxanne shoots him, too. By tossing it to Blaze and holding it in the dark, it gains the power to shoot fire. Blaze somehow turns back into Ghost Rider, and goes for the penance stare again. This time, Blackheart has a thousand souls in him, so Ghost Rider's attack is super-effective! Why don't more action scenes end with STARING POWER? Peter Fonda shows up to take back the Ghost Rider power, but Blaze says he's gonna keep the curse. I didn't see that one coming! Blaze splits up with Roxanne and drives down the highway as Sam Elliott waxes on about the west.

It actually isn't that bad. I found all the action sequences to be at least tolerable, and I'll admit that I got super-excited when I found out Sam Elliott was in this movie, and when he turned into the old timey Ghost Rider, it was really, really cool. Also, I'm a big fan of Peter Fonda, and I liked that they referenced Easy Rider visually through Johnny's bike, rather than having a half-dozen jokes like "so, how does that bike ride? Easy?" Or having Nic Cage go "This is no Easy Ride!" and so on. I haven't seen Wes Bentley since American Beauty but he was very good as the scheming, scenery-chewing baddie.

Three things really spoil this movie (or, alternatively, make it campy fun). First: Nic Cage. On wikipedia they talk about him giving Blaze "depth" by not making him stereotypically hard-living, hard-drinking. Instead, he eats jelly beans out of martini glasses. Here's a weird quirk for your next project, Nic: your nervous odd-ball character drinks soda only out of his lucky shoe, which he carries around for such occasions. He also has his "Con-Air" accent in full force, except when he forgets.

Second: the origin story/police confrontation garbage. Why does every comic movie have to be told in a linear fashion? Why do I have to put up with 38 minutes, nearly 1/3 of the film, before he ever becomes the title character? Why can't we have an interesting story first, and then have the breaks in the action be used to develop character and explain what happened? Ghost Rider's origin should take about 5 minutes between dialogue and visuals, but we get 8 times that much. Then, there's the scenes where Ghost Rider is somehow identified as Blaze and arrested, which was ridiculous, and then gets even more ridiculous when every cop in the city tries to catch him. Remember, the A-story is about mystical demons fighting for superiority, and we put up with ten unnecessary minutes of slapstick as the keystone cops try to catch Ghost Rider. The "make cops look like jack-asses" is a pretty common trope in comic book movies, to show off the X-Men's awesome power or Batman's fancy tank-car. But does Ghost Rider, a flaming-headed demon empowered by Mephistopheles really need to be built up? Can't the audience tell he's bad-ass when he races up a building on a flaming motorcycle, defying physics with his evil, haunted bike?

Finally: CGI. CGI is a cruel mistress for comic movies: on the one hand, it makes movies like Spider-Man or Ghost Rider possible without turning them into a campy joke. And the original transformation sequence is pretty cool. But the flaming skull is constant CGI, and ends up looking pretty terrible in close-ups of GR's face. Instead of using some old cinema tricks and combining them with CGI, the film lazily turns the computer on and lets it get to work.

Even with all that, I had fun. It reminded me of Constantine, which I also enjoyed despite its wooden lead, heavy-handedness and Shia Lebouf.

Comic Geekery:

One thing I didn't understand is why nearly all the demons in their "true form" looked so similar and used the same blue effect? Shouldn't Mephisto have a red coloring to separate him from his "son"? Why did they feel the name to use the Faust name of the character, not the Marvel character name?

Two comics geekery moments I really loved: first, combining the western Phantom Rider character with Ghost Rider. The first Ghost Rider was a hero in western comics first published in 1967, but when the flaming skull version was introduced, the minor western character had his name changed: there was never any connection between the two in the comics, and I liked bringing them together. Also, the shotgun that shoots hellfire. I always thought it was pretty damn cool in the comics and that they used it at the end when they didn't really need to was pretty cool.

What to Drink:

Jelly beans out of a martini glass.

Quotable Quotes:

Roxanne: Wait: You think I'm pretty, right?
Waiter: *Shrug*

Johnny Blaze: I just wanna talk to ya, I haven't seen you in 56,000 years.

Johnny Blaze: I am speaking to the fire element within me. Give me control over the possessing spirit.

Johnny Blaze: I sold my soul to the devil.
Roxanne: Umm-hmm.
Johnny Blaze: And now I have to spare you.
Roxanne: Spare me from what?
Johnny Blaze: The devil. On account of I work for him. That's why I couldn't make it to dinner.
Roxanne:You were working for the devil?
Johnny Blaze: Well yeah. I'm the devil's bounty hunter.

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