Ghost Rider

(2007) * 1/2 Pg-13
110 min. Columbia Pictures. Director: Mark Steven Johnson. Cast: Nicolas Cage, Wes Bentley, Eva Mendes, Matthew Long, Peter Fonda.

Since first burning up the pages of Marvel Comics in 1973, Ghost Rider has become a cult favorite with the monster-truck set, Method Man, and Nicholas Cage. The latter (who, in real life, sports a Ghost Rider tattoo) plays the dark superhero in the latest comic-to-screen action extravaganza, but as Ghost Rider is a C-lister in comic shops, so too is he in Hollywood. The hiring of writer-director Mark Steven Johnson (who previously screwed up Daredevil) sends another franchise straight to hell.

Ghost Rider begins with the requisite origin story, as young Johnny Blaze (Matt Long) plots elopement with his teenage sweetheart Roxanne Simpson (Raquel Alessi), only to run afoul of Mephistopheles (cannily cast sleazy-rider Peter Fonda). A deal with the devil leaves stunt biker Johnny invincible, famous for his feats of skill and apparent daring, but cursed. One fateful day, Johnny (now played by Cage) runs into two old acquaintances: Roxanne—now a TV reporter played by Eva Mendes—and the devil himself.

Unwillingly enlisted as the devil's bounty hunter, Johnny must pursue fallen angel Blackheart (Wes Bentley—remember him?) and learn the ropes—or is it chains?—from a mysterious cemetery caretaker (Sam Elliott). It all seems an awful lot like Blade except instead of turning vampiric by night, the hero's head turns into a flaming skull. The rest is pretty much the same, with the Goth tone tipped by an "Evil" Knievel hero, Kris Kristofferson replaced by Elliott, and washed up white-boy Steven Dorff replaced by washed up white-boy Bentley.

Sam Elliott is a talented guy and all, but it's beginning to be like watching beef jerky act. Bentley is merely lousy, but Mendes can barely form sentences (compensation: peek-a-boo blouses). Donal Logue turns up to make a couple of depressingly wan wisecracks, but this is Cage's show, which he tries to save with a rather soggy bag of quirks.

But beggers can't be choosers, so if you find yourself suffering through Ghost Rider, enjoy Cage sucking jelly beans from a martini glass, drinking coffee straight from the pot, and throwing in Elvis hand gestures whenever possible, as if he had a side bet going with David Lynch. Did I mention that Johnny Blaze is a monkey enthusiast and Carpenters fanatic?

Investing in the plot would be a distinct error in judgment: let's just say it climaxes with the head-scratcher "He may have my soul, but he doesn't have my spirit." It's the usual string of melodramatic soul-searching and special-effects set pieces leading to an apocalyptic showdown. It's the great irony of modern Hollywood that the stakes of action pictures have becomes so stratospheric that nothing could be more boring than a near-apocalypse, especially in the hands of ace dullard Johnson, whose sense of how to stage, frame, and edit an action scene rises from a tasteless video-game aesthetic.

Perhaps realizing his limitations or simply meeting the level of his material, Johnson gives Ghost Rider a campy, cartoony quality, but something's horribly wrong when camp is boring. The flick is all comic-book chic and none of the resonance; the mantra "You can't live in fear" is the closest it comes to profundity, but all we fear is the sequel (promised, in a brilliant PR attempt to preempt naysayers, at a recent press conference). Elliott narrates (twice, natch), "It's said that the West is built on legends...tall tales..." Call this the Legend of the 500-Mile Pothole.

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