Like it or not, comic book movies are hot right now, and it seems like a new one is coming out every week. Following his big-screen version of "Daredevil," director Mark Steven Johnson has adapted Marvel Comics' "Ghost Rider" for the screen. As a story that was subject to various incarnations over several decades, Johnson was able to tinker around with the character a bit to create something different and still faithful for the film. Blending elements of action, horror, and the Western genres, the end result is a film that manages to be fun even as it revels in stupidity.
After a brief prologue explaining the myth of the Ghost Rider—a possessed cowboy who cheated the devil out of a contract worth 1,000 evil souls—the film jumps to late 20th century Texas where a hotshot teen named Johnny Blaze performs motorcycle stunts with his father. With his beautiful girlfriend about to move away, Johnny proposes they run away together and elope. Discovering that his father has cancer, however, he becomes less certain about his hasty decision. As fate would have it, Johnny is paid a nightly visit by the devil himself (Peter Fonda), who offers to heal his father in exchange for Johnny's soul. Johnny unwittingly agrees, and sure enough, his father is back to normal the next morning. With that worry lifted off his chest, Johnny decides to leave with his girlfriend, but his father's sudden death in a motorcycle accident—brought on by the devil—causes him to abandon this idea and forget about love forever.
Several years later, the now-grown Johnny (Nicolas Cage) is a celebrity motorcyclist, à la Evel Knievel, who still lives with the guilt over his father's death. To keep his mind at ease, he eats jelly beans, listens to The Carpenters, and watches TV shows about monkeys. I kid you not. About to attempt his most ambitious stunt yet, he is unexpectedly interviewed by the girl he left behind years ago, Roxanne (Eva Mendes). Now a successful, though seemingly inept, reporter, Roxanne has not forgiven him for leaving her. He still has feelings for her, but just as she comes back into his life, so does the devil, formally known as Mephistopheles. He makes Johnny his new Ghost Rider, a "bounty hunter" of sorts, who transforms into a burning skeleton and collects new souls for hell.
Adding a little fuel to the fire, Mephistopheles' rebellious and defiant son Blackheart (Wes Bentley) comes to Earth in search of the 150-year-old contract the former Ghost Rider kept from the devil. With this, he hopes to take over the world and usurp his father's power to become the ultimate evil ruler. Not wishing to be outdone by his son, Mephistopheles offers to give Johnny his soul back on the condition that he destroys Blackheart and his hellish sidekicks. Johnny agrees, but secretly sets out to take control over his powers in order to eventually use them against Mephistopheles and work for good.
Special effects reign supreme in this flick that is short on plot and characterization. I suppose that's to be expected in a film in which the hero's head turns into a flaming skull any time he uses his powers. The effects are spectacular, to be sure. So spectacular, in fact, that virtually all of the non-CGI scenes are comparatively dull. Much of this is due to the writing, which frequently seems aggressively amateurish. The dialogue is about as hokey as it gets, but I get the feeling that it was meant to be. Take the scene in which the grown Johnny decides to take control of his powers by addressing the fire element within him. He simply says, "I am addressing the fire element within me." And presto! He has control! This kind of goofy humor clashes badly with the darker elements of the story, and this movie is dark. Director Johnson said he was aiming for a "Gothic Western," and that aptly describes the atmosphere generated throughout most of the third act. With desert vistas and villains draped in black dusters, Johnson conveys a spaghetti Western by way of Hammer Studios.
The acting works, to a certain degree, on sort of a campy level that compliments the humor. As Mephistopheles, Peter Fonda seems to be invoking a raspy Jack Nicholson. Wes Bentley is appropriately sinister as Blackheart, though at times he seems more bratty than evil. Sam Elliott gives the best performance in the movie as a mysterious mentor known only as "Caretaker." He tends the graveyard where the original Ghost Rider is allegedly buried with the coveted contract. Sadly, the weakest performances are given by the two leads. The title role gives Nicolas Cage plenty of opportunities to go over the top, but he just seems hammy, especially in comparison with the brooding quality of Matt Long as the younger Johnny. Cage also seems woefully miscast next to Eva Mendes, who must have been cast solely for her looks. Though their characters are roughly the same age, Cage is a good 10 years older than Mendes, and he looks it.
In spite of the acting and script problems, "Ghost Rider" still manages to be a pretty enjoyable diversion if you don't hold it under close scrutiny. Or better yet, any scrutiny. In his audio commentary, Johnson discusses his relationship with the critics, who complained that the film was not serious enough. His response was that he was making a comic book movie, not an art film. This may well be, but although his intentions may have been good, Johnson's comments are a direct slap in the face to many comic book fans who take their reading very seriously. Recent films like "Spider-Man 2" and "Batman Begins" have set a pretty high bar for comic book movies, and Johnson's pandering not only indicates a laziness on his part, but a considerable disrespect for his audience and underestimation of their intelligence. As it stands, the Ghost Rider is not a thinking man's superhero, but for its terrific visuals and fast-paced action sequences, I was left entertained, if only in a superficial way.
For this two-disc DVD edition, a special extended cut was prepared. At 123 minutes, it is 10 minutes longer than the theatrical cut. Having not seen the theatrical version, I cannot compare the two cuts thoroughly, though at over two hours in length, the extended version does seem overlong. Most of the added scenes are exposition, adding a little more depth to the characters and their situations. Remarkably, in his commentary, Johnson flat out admits that the majority of the added footage was not needed at all and that the film generally works better without it. So, why make an extended version? Well, to sell DVDs of course. As a film student, I have learned that if you don't need it, cut it. On the other hand, capitalism has taught me that if you can sell it, do it.
Sony's 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, mastered in high definition, looks just brilliant on screen. The print is absolutely free of dirt and artifacts. With much of the action taking place at night, it is crucial that black levels be deep and rich, and this transfer does not disappoint. Colors are beautifully saturated throughout, noticeably in the early circus scenes with young Johnny and his father. The image is sharp and crisp, displaying excellent detail and a smooth presentation. The special effects and action scenes are showcased at their spectacular best on this DVD.
Audio is presented in both Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS surround tracks. The sound matches the picture quality in its excellence, as sound effects and ambience are distributed thunderously around the channels in all of the action scenes. Dialogue and music come through clearly and warmly, never overpowered by rest of the audio. This one will give your system a workout with motorcycles zooming and pyrotechnics blazing. An alternate French 5.1 track is also available, along with English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
On disc 1, the film is accompanied by two audio commentaries, the first with director Mark Steven Johnson and visual effects supervisor Kevin Mack. Mack's participation is only sensible considering that his effects are the true stars of this picture. This commentary is quite informative and engaging, though perhaps a bit to self-congratulatory at times. Johnson in particular is a bit over-enthusiastic, but with the film being a hit, I guess he earned it. The second commentary is given by producer Gary Foster. His is considerably more subdued and also very informative. I actually found Foster's to be the more interesting, as he touched on many elements surrounding the film's production and not just on the actual filming. Both are definitely worth a listen, however. Some trailers for other Sony releases finish off the first disc.
Disc 2 presents us first with a feature-length documentary, "Spirit of Vengeance: The Making of Ghost Rider." The documentary is divided into three sections: "Spirit of Vengeance" (29 min.), dealing with general casting and production, "Spirit of Adventure" (30 min.), focusing largely on the conception of the hero's motorcycle and stunt scenes, and "Spirit of Execution" (23 min.), shedding light on post-production. Featuring interviews with cast and crew and containing loads of behind-the-scenes footage, this is a very enlightening documentary.
Up next is a three-and-a-half-minute feature, "Ghost Rider Animatics," showcasing a series of animated special effects shots in rough form that are featured in the movie.
The last bonus feature is a series of featurettes called "Sin & Salvation: Comic Book Origins of Ghost Rider." The four featurettes, each covering a different decade from the 1970s through the 2000s, include interviews with the writers and artists of the "Ghost Rider" comics during those respective periods, as well as lots of the artwork to give us a good history of the character in his various incarnations, beginning with a Western-themed comic in the 1950s. Personally, I found this to be the most interesting feature in this DVD set, as I was not previously familiar with "Ghost Rider" and appreciated the background information. From this feature, it is clear that Mark Steven Johnson culled bits from pretty much every incarnation and amalgamated them for his screen version. Collectively, these featurettes add up to about 46 minutes.
While far from the best comic book movie in recent years, "Ghost Rider" is nevertheless a fun ride for those who are game. You may or may not learn more from the added footage, but the special features on this two-disc set are solid and quite worthwhile, easily recommended for fans. The visual effects are outstanding, making for some top-notch action sequences. It may not signal the second coming of comic book movies, but "Ghost Rider" is a pleasant enough feature to keep you entertained. Just check your brain at the door and don't expect too much and you should have a good time.