Thursday, June 14, 2007

DVD Review: Ghost Rider

Per some requests (okay, two), here's a FULL movie review posted with the permission of my generous editor. You'll see no one's giving the great Roger Ebert a run for his money:

I enjoyed Ghost Rider. I enjoyed it more than Spiderman 3. I enjoyed it more than most of the films I’ve seen this Summer. The story moves. The stars are good. It has something to say about good and evil. And it has a good sense of humor about itself. My only complaint was that it needed a stronger villain and was a bit anti-climatic.

Johnny Blaze (Nic Cage), and his father are a couple of carny’s thinking they’re something more, thinking they’re motorcycle stunt drivers. With their cheesy tricks they manage to eke out a living but Johnny wants out. He’s fallen in love with Roxanne (Eva Mendes), a girl from the better part of town, and they’ve plotted their escape. But Dad’s been coughing throughout the movie, which can only mean one thing: terminal cancer. And so the Devil appears in the form of Peter Fonda and offers to cure dad in exchange for Johnny’s soul.

Johnny doesn’t know it yet, but he’s agreed to more than his soul. He’s agreed to become Old Scratch’s bounty hunter. Seems some folks sell their souls and back out of the deal and Scratch needs a Ghost Rider to hunt them down. Knowing he’s damned, Johnny gives up Roxanne and becomes a world famous stunt driver Evil Knievel-style. Is he really making all those amazing jumps, or is the Devil keeping him alive for when he’s needed?

Twenty-odd years later (Johnny and Roxanne are played by younger actors in the opening), Johnny desperately wants to find a way out of the deal, but before he can drum up a loophole the Devil comes for his due. Seems Satan’s Spawn (Wes Bentley) and his posse intend to unseat the old man. It’s time to resurrect the Ghost Rider to put this brash young dangerous boy in his place.

The first ninety-minutes of the film cruise by. It’s effortlessly paced and the refreshingly simple story unfolds in an entertaining and humorous way. The actors thankfully never wink in smug self-awareness at the silliness of the story — but the characters do. And that’s a big difference. There’s nothing worse than an actor making fun of the movie (Brando was the king of this), but it can be fun to watch characters just self-aware enough to see the abusrdity of their situation and act accordingly. The best example of this is after Johnny and Roxanne reunite, and he tries to explain his Ghost Rider-situation. It is laugh-out-loud priceless.

After three movies and seven hours of watching Tobey Maguire pass off a dull stare as acting it is so nice to see a real grown up playing a comic book hero. Every year I come to appreciate what Nic Cage brings to the screen more and more. He’s a grown up. He’s a man. He has a personality. And even in fluff like this, he tries. Here he’s working that Elvis Roustabout mojo and even in the most banal scenes remains interesting.

Eva Mendes can act. Who knew? Want to know if someone can act? See if they can rise above bad writing. And she does. She’s completely believable and even funny at times. The entire relationship between the two is contrived to breaking point, but they pull it off. There’s chemistry and charm to spare, and it was that part of the film I most enjoyed.

Peter Fonda may be playing the Devil, but he’s a god. I love Peter Fonda. He is the coolest actor alive right now. This man is pure movie star and without him to pull off the histrionics, all would be lost. Sam Elliott channels Kris Kristofferson’s mentor role from Blade and does what Sam Elliott does best: Look grungy, speak wise, and steal the screen. Another hilarious moment is when Elliott is sewing up Nic Cage and asks him to sterilize the needle.

It’s Wes Bentley who’s way in over his head as the villain Blackheart. I’m not sure who thought casting the kid enamored with the plastic bag as the antagonist was a good idea, but it’s not. There isn’t a single moment where he’s convincing as any kind of a threat to Ghost Rider and certainly not to Peter Fonda — whom we all know is capable of kicking all kinds of butt both on screen and off because he is The Mighty Peter Fonda. These films can rise and fall on the casting and creation of the antagonist, and this is where Ghost Rider wobbles and almost falls down.

Besides the performances to keep it standing, there’s also its themes of good versus evil. This is a story and world where God is very much alive. Where evil exists. I loved Ghost Rider’s “penance stare;” how he could look into the soul of evil and kill them using the pain of their own victims. I loved the idea of a good man who sold his soul selflessly. Sam Elliott’s character wonders if such an act wouldn’t be appreciated by God; if a person who damns themself for a noble reason is truly damned; or do they in fact walk with God.

Movies just don’t talk about this stuff anymore. Movies today try to philosophize in a world where there is no God — but isn’t that just naval-gazing? If we’re a biological accident and there’s no bigger truth out there, what’s there to talk about? For those of us who believe in the concept of Heaven and Hell, the themes of Ghost Rider resonate. Those themes may be buried in special effects and action scenes, but we’ll take them where we can get them.

Ghost Rider’s worth the rental if only for the actors and the very entertaining first two acts. Granted, act three takes much of the bloom off the rose. This is supposed to be the big showdown, but Nic Cage versus Plastic Bag Boy just isn’t much of a showdown. Now, Nic Cage versus The Mighty Peter Fonda…? That would’ve been something to see. And guess who’d I’d be rooting for…?

Dumb fun. Interesting themes. Wonderful actors. Will definitely see it again.


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