Friday, February 23, 2007


Directed by Mark Steven Johnson

Based on the Marvel Comics character created by writers Roy Thomas and Gary Friedrich, Ghost Rider is hardly your typical superhero fare. Debuting in August 1972 (in Marvel Spotlight No.5), the character came together from such diverse inspirations as Evel Knievel, Old West mythology, Las Vegas Elvis, a lingering 1960s fascination with the occult, and an updating of more traditional horror elements (this was a period where Marvel Comics were catering heavily to the horror crowd via such titles as Werewolf by Night and Tomb of Dracula).

The origin of the Ghost Rider character is the stuff of pure pop pulp: Johnny Blaze, a flamboyant Evel Knievel-like stunt bike rider, sells his soul to the demon Mephistopheles in order to save the life of his dying stepfather and riding mentor 'Crash' Simpson. When the pact backfires (Mephisto cures Crash's illness only to cause his death during a spectacular jump at Madison Square Garden) Blaze becomes host to the demon spirit Zarathos, and transforms into the mystical Ghost Rider, his body metamorphasising into a leather clad, fiery skeleton, haunting the backstreets and highways on his demonic chopper, meting out justice on the wicked with his terrifying 'Stare of Penance' (which enables the criminal to feel all the suffering and pain they have inflicted on their innocent victims throughout their life).

Thankfully, writer/director Mark Steven Johnson (who previously helmed the disappointing Marvel adaptation Daredevil) has realised that the only way to bring Ghost Rider to the screen is to not take its subject seriously (ala Batman Begins) but rather to simply let loose and have a lot of fun with it.

And for the most part, it works.

Filmed in Melbourne, Australia (doubling for Arizona), Ghost Rider is an enjoyable and quite satisfying combination of horror, action and humour (maybe the best of it's type since Sam Raimi's Army of Darkness in 1992 – although it's nowhere near as creative as that film). More importantly, it also has a genuine sense of fun, one that seemed lacking in other recent comic books films such as Fantastic Four and Superman Returns.

As Johnny Blaze, Nicholas Cage (himself a huge Ghost Rider fan who rallied for the role after hearing Johnny Depp was interested) turns in one of his patented off-the-wall performances, almost channelling at times his Sailor persona from Wild at Heart and infusing him with strange little character quirks (such as drinking glasses of jelly beans rather than cocktails!). There aren't that many cast members around who overshadow him, although Peter Fonda as Mephistopheles is suitably creepy (and great to see him back in a biker film!), and Sam Elliott is his usual stoic self in his role of the cemetery caretaker who guides Blaze through his transformation. Eva Mendes as Blaze's childhood sweetheart is not called upon to do much more than wear a wonder bra and look perfectly tanned and manicured, while Wes Bentley as the villain Blackheart looked a bit too much like a member of a Goth boy band to be truly frightening.

Ghost Rider is one of those films that is more memorable as a series of set pieces rather than a strong narrative. Blaze's early stunt jumps, his transformation into Ghost Rider, riding up and down the outside of a skyscraper on his chopper, and torturing his victims with his Stare of Penance are all moments of simple, popcorn munching thrills. The cgi effects are decent for a medium budget production as this, and the soundtrack pumps with such suitable tracks as Ozzy Osbourne's Crazy Train and Spiderbait's cover of the classic Ghost Riders in the Sky.

For a movie that many thought would be a given failure (it had no press screenings and the release was put back by 8 months while they tried to improve the effects), Ghost Rider has turned out to be an unexpected success, at least in box-office terms. Of course, the movie is garnering some of the worst reviews imaginable, but its popularity with audiences has proven that a film such as this is pretty much critic proof. It's almost a throwback to the kind of movie that would have played across American drive-ins for months on end during the 1970s.

Certainly not a movie for everyone, those who come to Ghost Rider leaving their thinking caps at the door and ready to unleash their inner child for 100 minutes of super-cheesy thrills are likely to come away smiling.

Copyright John Harrison 2007