Ten minutes.

That’s how long I got into Ghost Rider before checking my watch. Written and directed by Mark Steven Johnson (Elektra, which should have been my first warning), I feel pretty comfortable laying the blame for this debacle squarely at his feet. A comi-serious production with all the trappings of a horror flick, everything about the movie was over-the-top, apparently going for that coveted comic book nerd/WWE crosssover market. What could have been goofy fun decided to take itself far too seriously, despite the ridiculousness of the script and cast.

Based on the eponymous comic book, Ghost Rider reminded me of a phenomena that occurs quite often with Stephen King stories adapted to the silver screen. Some things you can believe or look good on a page, but play out as ridiculous on a big screen. The key to a successful comic book translation is the movies ability to make the audience suspend its disbelief. A movie like Batman Begins works because it is layered with intelligence and grounded in “reality”. Ghost Rider feels glib, as if gloating that it is smarter than its audience, when actually it is a “just cuz” movie: why did that happen? Just cuz. Why does anyone do anything in this movie? Just cuz.

“Tall tales to help us make sense of things too big or too terrifying to believe.” Caretaker (Sam Elliott)

This movie isn’t quite tall enough for us. Johnny Blaze (Nicolas Cage) inadvertently sells his soul and is cursed to become the Ghost Rider. The Ghost Rider, the devil’s bounty hunter, collects on the devil’s deals, sent to hunt down anyone who escapes from hell. There is a germ of a good idea here, mucked over due to poor execution.

Ghost Rider marks another mis-step in the up-and-down career of Nicolas Cage (Amos & Andrew, and almost every movie where someone has convinced him that he’s an action star). A comic book geek who went so far at to name his son Kal-El (after Superman’s birth name), he has angled to play just about every super hero role that has come down the pike. He has no clue, and little direction, how to play Johnny Blaze so he came up with an Evel Knievel meets Elvis persona. An affectation for Carpenter’s music, monkeys on television, and jelly beans do not make a character. Once he becomes the Ghost Rider, any tension quickly dissipates as none of his threats come close to matching his power. It’s the equivalent of Superman vs. muggers.

“Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand. If Satan drives out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then can his kingdom stand?” –Matthew 12:25-26

The bulk of the plot revolves around Mephistopheles (Peter Fonda) sending Ghost Rider on an errand to dispatch the devil’s son, Blackheart (Wes Bentley), and his minions, the rest of the four horsemen of mediocrity. A fight fire with fire scenario that lacks Constantine’s Machiavellian twists and layered characterizations when it comes to dealing with (fallen) angels.

“If somebody makes a mistake, a big mistake, do you think they have to pay for it every day for the rest of their lives?” –Johnny Blaze

Armed with his penance star, however, this is what the movie is mostly about. In the face of the bad choices we have made, our journey becomes one of the search for redemption. There are many kinds of “spirits” in the world that profess to offer freedom; the life of you always getting and doing what do you want, of living under your own will and direction. [“For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, is not of the Father but is of the world. And the world passes away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides for ever.” I John 2:15-17].

Johnny Blaze seeks control over his possessing spirit, an internal battle, as he seeks what we all seek: a second chance

“You ain’t making the choice, the choice is making you.” –Barton Blaze (Brett Cullen)

That’s it. I’m done wrestling with this movie for any sort of insight. This was strictly horror by numbers, cornball dialogue, cliched imagery buried in “end of days” claptrap, making up the mythology as they went along. A cheesefest of overacting, that is, when they bothered to act at all. Throw in the headache inducing score and you have an overblown Tales From the Crypt episode, without the fun.

None of which will matter a bit, since Ghost Rider debuted with the highest opening numbers for a President’s Day weekend or Nicolas Cage career. In other words, come sequel time, make the best of your second chance.

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