Friday, February 3, 2012

Ghost Rider - Worthy Of A Penance Stare

Ghost Rider is a comic book that I have only recently gotten into with the 2011 relaunch during Marvel's recent Fear Itself crossover event. I enjoy this iteration of the superhero, especially for its humor and badass artwork, and I was able to understand the history further with Cycle of Vengeance, a one-shot comic which reprints the initial appearances of each of the previous three Ghost Rider series (I highly recommend it for newcomers to the series). Before I became a follower, I was on the fence when a movie was released based on the character in 2007. With a sequel, Spirit of Vengeance, on the way this month, I decided to watch the original to form my own opinion of it (the subject here is a rental of the Extended Cut). Needless to say, now that I'm more familiar with the comic, I am not a fan of this movie.

Johnny Blaze (Matt Long) is a stunt performer with his father Barton (Brett Cullen), who is a smoker dying from cancer. It is then that Mephistopheles (Peter Fonda) arrives to make a deal with Johnny, ensuring that his father stays alive. Despite being healthy the next day to his son's surprise, Barton dies while performing a stunt, after which Johnny runs away only to meet up with Mephistopheles, who states that with his end of the bargain fulfilled, the one who signed it is now cursed to be the Devil's personal bounty hunter. Years later, Johnny (Nicolas Cage) continues to be a stuntman, surviving a series of increasingly dangerous stunts to much curiosity. What follows is a series of curbstomp battles as Johnny, now the Ghost Rider, is tasked to take down Blackheart (Wes Bently), a demon who wants the powers of the spirit of vengeance for himself.

The plot as a whole is sleep-inducing, particularly because we don't actually get to see the title character until about halfway into the movie, since that time is devoted entirely to the Ghost Rider's origin story, and the journey towards that first appearance is very uninteresting, unlike other superhero movies such as Iron Man or Captain America, the latter of which is entirely about the origin story. After the Ghost Rider does finally show up, he isn't utilized very well and his appearances are limited, stripping the film of any expansion on the aforementioned one-sided battles or more potentially awesome shots. As a bonus the original Ghost Rider, Carter Slade (Sam Elliott), is incorporated into the plot, but his transformation is made entirely pointless when he leaves after riding with Johnny, which ultimately wastes an opportunity to make the final battle against Blackheart more suspenseful.

Since Nicolas Cage is reportedly a huge Ghost Rider fan, you'd think he would put a lot of effort into playing the title character, right? Actually he continues acting how he usually does, ranging only between dull surprise and chewing the scenery. This was somewhat off-putting to me since Matt Long, who was younger Johnny Blaze, seemed to have a better performance than Nic Cage in the little screen time he had.

Adding to this, there is plenty of inconsistent logic throughout the film. For instance, Carter Slade mentions to Johnny that the demons present cannot tread hallowed ground, yet eventually even the Devil himself is shown to be able to tread hallowed ground. Some of the inconsistency also covers how Johnny is able to become the Ghost Rider. Even though it's established that the spirit of vengeance can only come out at night and when there's evil around, Carter was able to transform, as well as Johnny in the same scene, even though there was no evil around. What takes the cake though is that despite the Ghost Rider embodying the element of fire, he is able to conveniently show up underwater to immediately win against a water demon even though water of that scale would totally cancel out fire, supernatural or otherwise.

If there's one good thing about this movie at all, it's the special effects, especially the ones used for the titular Ghost Rider. The way his skeletal body is rendered looks fantastic, even if it does look a little fake, and the fire effects are equally impressive. The same can be said about the original Ghost Rider and the demons Johnny encounters; overall, the effects aren't too bad.

Since now I'm more familiar with Ghost Rider's origin in the comic, I noticed that changes were made between it and the film adaptation. For example, in the movie Mephistopheles goes to Johnny and makes the deal that he can make Barton "healthy as a horse", whereas in the original comic Johnny, whose father is already dead, makes a deal with Satan that his adoptive father, Crash Simpson, wouldn't die from a deadly disease, presumably cancer (which to me makes for a better twist). Because of this change to the deal, in the movie's version it seemed more like the Devil was trying to come up with an excuse to own Johnny's soul, while in the comic's version his soul belongs to Satan because of his exact words, which bonds him to the spirit Zarathos (the name of the demon that forms Ghost Rider). Origin aside, Nic Cage's performance of Blaze comes off as more of an idiot than the Johnny in the comics (or at least what I've read), who took his situation more seriously and wanted to be rid of his curse.

Ghost Rider is a promising package, but it doesn't really live up to much of anything. The acting of the main star is a little off, the fights are boring and too short, and the logic within it eventually begins to crumble as it goes on. The best part out of the whole thing is the effects, but that's not enough of a reason to watch this movie, not even if you're a Ghost Rider fan. Needless to say, I have much less of a desire to see the sequel than I already did.

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