Comic book adaptations of late are feeling less and less like feature films and more like depictions of their life-sized action figure counterparts. It’s telling that so many of these movies are aimed at preexisting, built-in audiences, as studio execs and directors-for-hire are less worried about introducing new characters and plots to viewers than they are at satisfying their base visceral desires. Performers are chosen not for their thesping skills, but for how well their public image matches their assigned character; directors not for their storytelling abilities, but for how readily they can supply the components for the much-needed, appetite-whetting trailer (with apologies to Raimi, Lee, Nolan and Singer).
Ghost Rider is such a film, although “feature length toy commercial” is a more appropriate descriptor. For about one minute, it appears that an interesting character study is underway—unsurprisingly, this is about the same amount of time it takes for Nicolas Cage’s forced brooding to wear itself thin. For all it’s Faustian imagery of hellfire, devils, and a flaming Harley Davidson, Ghost Rider is existentially (and depressingly) weightless, with as much fault going to the director’s lack of a consistent vision as to the fact that young Johnny Blaze’s (Matt Long) decision to sell his soul to the devil (a deal to save his dying father from cancer) is the kind of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it excuse for a character foundation. True to form, director Mark Steven Johnson is infinitely less concerned with exploring Blaze’s smoldering, soul-deprived isolation than he is infatuated with the character’s skull-’n’-bones imagery.
Such a misplaced infatuation might have been more forgivable had the film shown some visual flair (my mind wanders to Constantine, which was almost as skimpy in the character department, but was guided by a singularly distinctive visual palate). Ghost Rider’s deprived subtext is only exacerbated by its reliance on some of the most rote cinematography imaginable; entire sequences are composed of nothing more than shots of the front, back, and side(s) of Johnny and his ride, the camera rarely assuming a position that isn’t parallel or perpendicular to its subject. This is to say nothing of how dull the Rider himself quickly becomes, his chains-as-whip shtick surprisingly un-menacing (where’s Indy when you need him?) and his fiery nocturnal form a decided mark against the prospect of further CGI use in film.
Ghost Rider is drenched in Western iconography and allegory, its back story rooted in a mythic cowboy legend about a former Ghost Rider (seems each generation gets their own) who snubbed Mephistopheles (Peter Fonda) out of a deal involving some thousands of damned souls. The film quickly moves to compliment its old-west attitude with classical and religious metaphors ad nauseam, but its approximation of the genre is so perfunctory (beginning with Sam Elliott’s embarrassing narration) as to suggest that its makers never actually saw any of the films that partially inspired their adapted source material. It’s cartoonish exercises are less silly than they are utterly soulless. This is, at least, consistent with the film’s cast of characters, of which Cage’s one-note anti-hero is, sadly, among the higher rankings. Eva Mendes is borderline unwatchable as Johnny’s resurrected childhood love interest (and may well be the most unbelievable news reporter in the history of the cinema), while the majority of the supporting cast exist for no other reason than to die off in the most meaningless ways possible.
And then there’s Blackheart (Wes Bentley), the active threat to Mephistopheles’ background menace, who gets one of those ridiculous introductory scenes in which he kills off a multitude of harmless, irrelevant and heretofore unknown characters for no other reason than to flex his muscles (and, in the process, proves absolutely nothing to nobody). If any one aspect of Ghost Rider can be singled out as a low point (apart from Cage’s embarrassing attempts to fulfill the script’s idea of humor, that is), it would be the zero-dimensionality of its antagonists, who are as lacking in motivation as they are easily and unimaginatively disposed—the conflicts between Johnny Blaze and his gothic foes have even less dramatic heft than your average PlayStation cutscene. Likewise, director Johnson’s use of the film’s effects is regularly indiscernible: when Johnny’s flame-tinged hallucinations begin, don’t even bother trying to follow their rhythm-deprived mayhem.
I imagine that the fanboys who flock to these adaptations on a weekly basis will easily fill the many gaping character holes via their already extensive familiarity with the comic’s universe, but this reliance on outside knowledge of the source material to justify the film’s existence only makes the subsequently unfolding train wreck that much more infuriating for those not yet indoctrinated. I consider it an advantage to have had only limited and incidental familiarity with comic books in my lifetime, as it has allowed me to approach each new film unconcerned with issues of adaptation (in which I always defer to the creativity of the filmmaker over the “preservation” of the source material). Yet for every imaginatively rendered Spider-Man 2 and Hellboy, there is at least one comparable Ghost Rider: lazy, uninterested in its characters, and seemingly unconcerned that an audience will in fact be in attendance. For shame.
House contributor Robert Humanick’s writings have appeared in Slant Magazine and on his blog The Projection Booth. He also works sporadically with fellow Slant critic Paul Schrodt at The Stranger Song.