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Rider’ takes the fast lane to cinematic trash heap

Rama Gottumukkala | Tuesday, February 20, 2007

The first sign that something’s gone horribly, horribly wrong with “Ghost Rider” comes 15 minutes into the movie.

Life is good for young Johnny Blaze, a hotshot motorcycle-riding stuntman – until he finds a (rather conveniently placed) doctor’s diagnosis lying around the house, saying his father has cancer. Fortunately, a mysterious stranger named Mephistopheles (Peter Fonda) offers a miraculous cure for his dear old dad. All Johnny has to do, naturally, is sign away his soul.

He’s thinking about it, and while reading the agreement, he pricks his finger on a sharp edge of the devilish document. A small drop of blood splatters on the dotted line.

“That’s good enough,” says Mephisto, a crafty old dodger. And that’s that – Johnny’s fate is sealed. Too bad Mephisto never told Johnny that his cancer-free dad would ride headlong into the outer rim of a ring of fire the next day.

Wait, didn’t the snazzy tagline on all the “Ghost Rider” movie posters proclaim that, “long ago he made a deal to save someone he loved”? Clearly, the filmmakers didn’t get the memo when forming this steaming hot pile of hellish tripe.

That Johnny never willfully signs the damned paper is the first of many signs that our hero, and this picture, is beyond saving.

A paper-thin plot gets slimmer still when director/writer Mark Steven Johnson cranks time forward to the present. When he’s not plotting death-defying stunts, grownup Johnny (Nicolas Cage) enjoys eating jelly beans out of martini glasses, jamming to Karen Carpenter and reading dusty old tomes about the occult. But – surprise, surprise – Mephisto comes calling when his vile son, Blackheart (Wes Bentley), wants to move in on daddy’s turf. Mephisto unleashes the dormant Ghost Rider and sets Cage – err, the Rider – loose to wreck unholy vengeance on us, err, those who deserve it.

As comic book properties go, Ghost Rider is the redheaded stepchild of the Marvel Comics family. He’ll never have the name recognition of a Spider-Man or Wolverine, but his full head of flames and goth-chic getup of black leather jacket, chains and a wicked hog means he’s always trying. Sadly, this Rider careens into a ditch, and the culprits are Cage and Johnson.

“Daredevil,” Johnson’s last feature film, was a passable and sometimes genuinely entertaining take on another lesser-known hero in the Marvel Comics stable. But here, his skills seem to have devolved.

The dialogue in “Ghost Rider” is atrocious. Many of the zaniest one-liners are left for Bentley’s Blackheart to contend with. It’s hard enough to fear a villain who dares to proclaim, “I will retire your Ghost Rider. And then I will retire you … Father.” But it’s a downright embarrassment to villainy when his encore is, “We are Legion … because we are many!” Pathetic.

For diehard comic book fans, Joel Schumacher’s 1997 film “Batman and Robin” is a registered crime against humanity for how badly it crippled the Dark Knight. Ghost Rider purists have good reason to weep, for Johnson comes dangerously close to dunking their beloved Flamehead under water for good.

As for Mr. Cage, he seems content to spend his screen time making a mockery of the character and himself. When producers were looking to land Johnny Depp for the role, Cage stepped in and revealed his deep love – and body art – for the character. Ironically (or fittingly), Cage had to have his Ghost Rider tattoo covered with make-up to play Johnny Blaze.

When he’s not hiding behind a heinously bad computer-generated skull, Cage ceaselessly points at his victims and gesticulates about justice. His Ghost Rider rarely bothers to punch someone with those oven-hot mitts of his, preferring instead to utilize his Penance Stare. After locking eyes with his victim in a short-lived staring contest, Ghost Rider reflects back all of the pain that the wrongdoer has inflicted on other people and increases the agony tenfold.

It is our deep misfortune that the real Ghost Rider is nowhere in sight to save us, for surely he would unleash the Penance Stare on Johnson and Cage, making them suffer the full horror of what they’ve done.