Ghost Rider – A Review

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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Ghost Rider

“Road to Damnation”
Writer: Garth Ennis
Artist: Clayton Crain
Publisher: Marvel Comics

Garth Ennis has been on quite a roll. I’ve forgiven him for that waste of perfectly good trees known as Goddess, as he has enjoyed phenomenal runs on Hitman, Preacher, Hellblazer, and Punisher. Quietly, he has established himself among the top echelon of comic book writers, alongside Ellis and Morrison, especially for writing redeemable bastards. Which makes him a perfect match for giving voice to the character of Ghost Rider.

Making his first leap into the spotlight in 1972, at the height of our fascination with daredevils, Ghost Rider has remained a perennial fan favorite. Like Aquaman and Black Panther, he is a B-list character that has been resurrected several times as different writers have tried to nail down him character definitively. But they keep trying because the image of a leather jacket wearing biker whose skull and cycle are on fire is just plain cool.

This also means that the years have brought a tangle of continuity issues that any new writer has to either cut through or ignore. His story, at its core, revolves around motorcycle stunt driver Johnny Blaze who has made a deal with the devil, Mephisto in the Marvel Universe, in order to save the life of his friend who was dying of cancer. Selling his soul for a boon in a fixed game, Johnny Blaze becomes bound to Zarathos while his friend, cured of the cancer, ends up dying in another motorcycle stunt. Blaze and Zarathos eventually battle for control of the body.

In Ennis’ hands, gone is any mention of Zarathos or Mephisto, and Ghost Rider becomes almost a mythological figure, a boogeyman of the spiritual realms. All Johnny Blaze, doomed to damnation after making his pact with Satan.

The digital art by Clayton Crain is gorgeous to look at (again, artists drool at the prospect of drawing Ghost Rider) and proves a great match for Ennis’ story. It’s the Ennis portion of the story that gave me pause. Having read the best of his work, familiarity bred … familiarity. Ennis doesn’t quite phone this story in, but he uses many of his rhythms, characters, and flourishes in this story. Hell and Earth somehow connected in Texas. The gamesmanship of spiritual forces, with the angels and demons not being all that different from one another. All that was missing was his love of soldiers and war stories, though it was hinted at with his fallen reverend character.

However, it’s obvious that Ennis keeps returning to spiritual themes for a reason, a showcase for his various issues with the Church, religion, and how God is depicted. Christianity, for him, is seen through the lens of the KKK and the corrupt rich church, complete with corrupt/fallen leader. Though some will surely say that this is a relevant image, my biggest beef is that it has become such a tired trope that writing this is lazy. And for a writer as talented as Ennis, such cliches are actually beneath him. It’s kind of like writing the evil businessman, which sadly, Ennis also does in this run.

However, his depiction of heaven and hell, angels and demons, are straight out of Medieval times, treating the imagery of the Bible to establish a grand mythology, much the same way the movie Constantine did. Yet this does touch on the nearly universal intuition of a cosmic conflict. That there are gods, angels, demons, principalities and powers engaged in a cosmic battle of good vs. evil, wreaking havoc on creation, bringing ills on humanity as collateral damage. This sense of a spiritual conflict has found its way into various mythologies and religious practices, yet our modern, Western mind has dismissed it as ignorant, primitive, or superstition. People believe what makes them feel safe, but this intrusion of the supernatural into the ordinary is what gives horror much of its thrust.

In a way, myth anticipates reality. Our world is largely shaped by this war between good and evil, both on an individual level (with our personal struggles), on a communal level (as humanity relates to one another), and on a spiritual level (the behind the scenes conflicts of the spiritual realm). Yet, according to the Christian story of the Bible, the devil and his kingdom of powers and demons is defeated by Christ’s death and resurrection. Jesus, the God-man as warrior, defeating these forces in unexpected, even counter-intuitive, ways. Through Christ, Death and evil are overthrown.

Ghost Rider, with his flaming skull and motorcycle, was a chain wielding hellspawn long before Todd McFarlane’s Spawn made it cool. This is a great jump on book for new readers as everything is as new to this “recalled to duty” Ghost Rider as it is to us. However, as a fan of Ennis, it felt like he just threw in all the things he was known for–from violence to his crass humor and his stock badass characters–without stretching for anything new. All this to whet our appetites, bring Ghost Rider to the forefront, in order to prepare the way for the feature length movie from Sony Pictures due out February 2007 and starring Nicholas Cage.

If you want to make sure that I see your comment or just want to stop by and say hi, feel free to do so on my message board. I apologize in advance for some of my regulars.