Comic book movies are a dime a dozen now and days. But Ghost Rider remains the rare jewel in a nickel-plated batch. It is a comic book movie that takes itself as seriously as it needs to without making all that big of a deal out of it. For a movie about a stuntman who gets tricked into becoming the Devil’s bounty hunter and morphs into a biker with a flaming skull, is a bit of a tightrope act.
Mark Steven Johnson’s Ghost Rider exists in a weird time for comic book movies. In 2007 we were just a year away from Jon Favreau’s Iron Man, whose massive success would go on to be the lynchpin of the MCU. Heck, to put it in even more perspective, Ghost Rider came out a few scant months before Sam Rami’s Spider-Man 3.
Perhaps the most startling thing about Ghost Rider is the actor playing Johnny Blaze, Nicolas Cage. Cage is a cinematic wild card when it comes to his performances. He can either be the best thing about it or the worst, it must be either-or because Cage doesn’t do anything half-assed. His Blaze is a morose, emo stuntman who pines for Roxanne (Eva Mendes) and mourns the death of his father and it’s clear with every frame, Cage at least, is having a ball.
Johnson wrote the screenplay, and much like the best of the modern MCU movies he understands the best way to tackle the cosmic and the inconceivable is to treat it as mundane and perfectly logical. But more importantly, the dialogue is delightfully kooky. Moments such as when Johnny’s friend and manager Mack (Donal Logue) tries to talk sense into his friend and turns off the music and the television to try and get his full attention. “Mack, you touch the Carpenters or that chimp video again, we got a scrap on our hands.”
Cage’s delivery of the line is deathly serious. Honestly, it’s hard to imagine any other actor more suited for Johnny Blaze than Cage. He carries himself throughout the film as if the weight of the world is on his shoulders, but unlike most other actors, he’s never dull but he’s also never unserious. Ghost Rider is a fun movie because unlike the modern comic book movies that traverse in preposterousness, it never pretends to be anything but.
That actors such as the legendary Peter Fonda, who plays Mestophales, and Sam Elliot with his bourbon-infused voice as the impeccably named Carter Slade, seem to be having just as much fun as Cage, making it all go down so much easier. Ghost Rider even has the temerity to spend half its run time focusing on Jonny trying to woo back his lost love.
Johnson brazenly infuses scenes right out of a romantic comedy into his supernatural melodrama about demons from Hell roaming the Earth looking for essentially buried treasure, aka lost souls. Eva Mendes plays Roxanne Simpson, the intrepid reporter and Blaze’s love interest from his boyhood days, who comes back into his life on the anniversary of his father’s death.
Mendes is an actor that Hollywood has never really figured out what to do with. Here she is close to near comedic perfection as the sort of a reporter trying to fight off a love she had sworn she had gotten over. Yes, she is a damsel in distress, but only because when the bad guy is the literal son of Satan, Blackheart (Wes Bentley), who isn’t?
There’s even a scene after Johnny jumps over six Black Hawk Helicopters and through a ring of fire on his motorcycle where he races after Roxanne and her news van to tell her he made the jump. Oh, and to ask her out on a date. Ghost Rider may be about demons and devils, but it’s fueled by a deep sense of “golly gee willikers” sensibility that complements the darker aspects of the story.
It doesn’t hurt that Mendes and Cage have nice chemistry and both seemed to be playing their characters at the same pitch. The two may be turning in two very different performances but they also seem to be existing in the same movie. Being able to keep up with all of Nic Cage’s Nic Caginess is a talent and should come with its own award.
Even the requisite scene in which Johnny discovers that his powers come with six-pack abs. We’ve seen this scene countless times where the hero gasps in awe as every nerd’s wish-fulfillment comes true. Only here Johnson and Cage end the moment with Blaze making faces at his reflection. Johnson has a keen understanding of when there should be irreverence and when there should be awe at the flaming skull-headed biker from hell.
Ghost Rider was shot by Russell Boyd, who has done everything from Crocodile Dundee I and II to lensing multiple Peter Weir films such as Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. Boyd frames every scene with a tongue firmly in his cheek, but never in a way that’s over the top. The graveyard scenes have a Western Noir quality to them that feels ripped from the comic pages.
Boyd and Johnson have such a tight grip on Ghost Rider that when we cut to an overhead shot of the flaming cyclist and Slade’s flaming horseman while the music from “ Riders in the Sky” plays, I wasn’t rolling my eyes. I was clapping and stomping my feet with a sort of raucous joy that I don’t often feel in the newer MCU films. They understand the expectations of the audience and know when to give in to it just enough to make it worthwhile.
Ghost Rider would be a difficult property to adapt for anyone. But, Johnson makes it look all so effortless. The film has a personality and a sort of grim kookiness about it that makes it impossible not to love, even just a little.
Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Releasing