Ghost Rider is not the worst movie of the year. That’s going to disappoint some people – myself included – but that doesn’t mean it’s a good movie. It’s not even an OK movie. Ghost Rider is, more often than not, terrible – but in a very watchable way. A huge part of that comes from Nicolas Cage, who is making acting choices that leaves you to wonder if he knew he was in this particular movie. Then halfway through the movie you realize that he actually knows exactly what movie he’s in – it’s everyone else involved in the production who is delusional.
Based on the third tier Marvel Comics character, Ghost Rider is a movie that could only have happened now, mostly because the main character is a guy with a flaming skull for a head – this is the kind of effect that’s tough to pull off practically. It turns out that it’s occasionally tough to pull it off in CGI, especially in close-ups, where the Rider’s head sometimes looks like it was created in an Apple IIe 3D modeling program by a goth middle-schooler. But mostly the Ghost Rider looks pretty good, and it would have been nice to see this character used in a better film.
A better film would have started off without a script by Mark Steven Johnson, a man who is so unable to avoid being corny that his Indian name is Maize. The dialogue often sounds like it was written by that same goth middle-schooler, and the movie is also infused with the kind of retarded theology that would appeal to that sort of audience. In fact, Ghost Rider is very much a movie for 9 year olds that feels like it was made by a 9 year old. I think that even 14 or 15 year olds will feel too old for what passes as cool or dark in this edge of camp movie, including satanic enemies who look like even gayer take offs on Matrix villains, a love interest that never threatens to get too gooey or too sexual, and a central hero who shows up rarely and doesn’t do very much but pose.
It’s the lack of interesting Ghost Rider action that makes this movie flop. Cage is more fascinating as the completely loony Johnny Blaze than the Rider ever is, and even when he’s flamed up and skeletal the movie doesn’t give him shit to do. There are four villains – three elemental demons and Blackheart, the devil’s son played with Velvet Underground weariness by Wes Bentley – and the battles between Ghost Rider and them are perfunctory at best. The bad guy menaces Ghost Rider, Ghost Rider hits them with his flaming chain, the fight is over. I am not even exaggerating here – the longest fight scene in the film isn’t even that long, but it includes part of a chase and an extraneous confrontation with a helicopter to beef it up a little bit. These villains all look like crap, by the way – the only decent FX in the whole film went to certain Ghost Rider scenes.
I wouldn’t have minded the flat action if the movie had moved, but at about two hours the entire proceeding drags along. Sure, Cage’s outré choices as Johnny Blaze amuse… for a while. But the film keeps stuttering, building up to what seems like something interesting and then petering out, giving us long scenes of exposition and padding. Thankfully Sam Elliot is on hand to dole out most of the exposition as The Caretaker, which at least makes those scenes palatable. Elliot can liven up even Johnson’s hammy, stilted dialogue. Eva Mendes can’t. She’s terrible – utterly wretched, in fact – and woefully miscast, being at least fifteen years younger than Nic Cage, but being portrayed as the same age in flashbacks. She gets far too much screentime, and maybe a better actress could have made the long stretches of nothing between Ghost Rider flame-ups more palatable.
There are a couple of moments in the film where I thought it could go someplace. Ghost Rider is, once or twice, played as more of a Universal monster than a standard superhero, which is interesting. There’s a fun scene where Johnny Blaze gets locked up in a prison cell – and since he turns into Ghost Rider when in the presence of evil, things get hairy quickly. But again and again the movie approaches interesting concepts, flirts with them, and then moves on.
The movie often looks nice – Johnson occasionally embraces a studio soundstage aesthetic that I really like, but this just means he should be shooting movies for better directors. And he definitely should not be writing anything – the holes in logic and common sense in this film are almost enough to teeter Ghost Rider into the ‘so bad it’s good’ category. Tragically, it stays on the ‘so bad it’s just pretty bad’ side of the fence, even though Nicolas Cage seems to understand how utterly ridiculous everything around him is. If he had been able to just get Peter Fonda or Wes Bentley to match him in a scenery chewing contest, Ghost Rider could have been this decade’s Battlefield Earth. Instead it’s just a little bit better than Elektra, a movie that kids who are pre-adolescent today will defend to the death in twenty years, the way too many people my age defend crap from their youth.