Shitty Movie Sundays: Ghost Rider

Half-baked idea: A remake of Apocalypse Now with Nicolas Cage starring in four of the most prominent roles. De-aged, he plays Captain Willard, dancing and twirling, drunk on expensive cognac in Saigon while waiting for a mission and hurting himself. As in the original, it would be an improvisational tour de force, perhaps ending in something more outrageous than a shattered mirror and a bloody hand. Either way, he’d be naked.

Later, Cage appears as Colonel Kilgore. “I love the smell of napalm in the morning. BOOYAH!! Let’s do this!” Then he hops onto a surfboard and paddles out into the glorious six-foot swirls, mortar and artillery shells fountaining the sea around him.

At Kurtz’s compound, a long-haired, bedraggled Cage comes out from behind the menacing gathering of Montagnard fighters, cameras hanging from his chest, guiding Willard and company in to dock, haranguing them with tales of Colonel Kurtz’s god-like prowess.

Finally, of course, is Cage as the crazy Kurtz himself, a study in pre-explosive tension, conflating poetry and dime-store philosophy in a hopeless attempt to reconcile his conscience with the things he has done.

Truly, is there any movie one can think of with so many roles that are tailor-made for Nicolas Cage? I think not.

Anyway, Cage returns to Shitty Movie Sundays with Ghost Rider, the adaptation of the Marvel comic from 2007.

Cage plays Johnny Blaze, who was the second of the Marvel Ghost Rider characters, first debuting way back in 1972. Johnny is a stunt motorcycle rider in a traveling circus. During his teenaged years (Johnny is played by Matt Long in these scenes), Johnny performs with his father, Barton (Brett Cullen). But, Barton is deathly ill with cancer.

Enter the devil, played by Peter Fonda. He offers the typical deal. Sign on the line which is dotted, and Johnny forfeits his soul in exchange for making Barton’s cancer vanish. It being the devil, though, Johnny should have read the fine print. The devil cures Barton’s cancer, but then Barton dies while performing a stunt the next day. Oh, bitter irony! I can’t sympathize too much. Anyone with a lick of sense would realize that no reward the devil can offer is worth an eternity of suffering. But, that wouldn’t make for a very good story.

And this is a good story, at least at first. Writer/director Mark Steven Johnson doesn’t wow with any originality in this introduction, but it’s still strong. It’s like a good burger. There’s nothing new about it, but it’s still a good burger.

Then the wheels kind of come off.

Adult Johnny is a national sensation, performing jumps that would make Evel Knievel blanche. But, unbeknownst to Johnny’s friends and all his fans, Johnny cannot be killed. The devil makes sure of that, keeping Johnny healthy for a time when he will be needed. Because, besides selling his soul, part of Johnny’s debt to the devil is to become the devil’s bounty hunter — a spectral, fiery rider whose job is to send souls to hell, and whatever other errands the devil can think of. And there is an errand to perform.

Four demons, led by Blackheart (Wes Bentley), are on the trail of a large cache of souls that, in effect, are a weapon Blackheart can use against the devil to attain control of hell and bring fire to the earth. The devil, being the selfish entity it is, calls in Johnny’s marker, and sets him after the rebel demons. At night, Johnny transforms into the Ghost Rider, and gets after it.

There’s a good story in there, but it all falls apart under the weight of mid-2000s Hollywood mediocrity.

The first problem is the CGI. It’s inescapable. It’s middling for the time, which is bad enough, but there’s also just so much of it. In Johnny’s Ghost Rider guise, it is necessary, otherwise Cage would have had to go through filming with his head and hands on fire, so that gets a bit of a pass. But, elsewhere, this is the type of film that is addicted to CGI. It’s used to create impossible cinematography, as when the Ghost Rider’s flaming chopper rides up the side of a building. It’s used to cartoonish effect to superimpose demon teeth and evil eyes on Blackheart and his crew. It’s used to create entire backgrounds and settings. It just pounds and pounds away at a viewer’s senses, and it never crosses into believability. It’s endemic in a film that knows no subtlety.

Next are the performances. Cage is great…in a shitty movie kind of way. There are moments every other scene where Cage is allowed to stretch his unique abilities at overacting, and it is glorious. When he’s reigned in, he’s exactly as good and dependable as he has always been. The man can act, after all. So, Cage is not the problem.

Neither is Sam Elliott, who appears in the wizened mentor role for Johnny Blaze. Or Donal Logue, who is, unfortunately, shoehorned into the type of enthusiastic, sycophantic role that Philip Seymour Hoffman had in Twister. I’m disappointed that his talent was wasted in this role.

Really, it’s Bentley and Eva Mendes that are the problems. Bentley wasn’t right for the part. His Blackheart, despite being evil to the core, is more evocative of Adam Scott in Parks and Rec than anything truly intimidating.

Then there’s Mendes. She plays Johnny’s love interest, Roxanne Simpson. I was shocked at how bad her acting was. It has all the skill one would find in a typical high school play. It’s such a bad performance that I might have the guts to tell her so to her face. It’s a performance among the worst I have ever seen in film, joining the pantheon of worst Shitty Movie Sundays performances alongside Robbi Morgan in Friday the 13th, Sienna Guillory in any Resident Evil flick, and Ernie Reyes, Jr. in Red Sonja. Yuck. I know it’s hopeless to expect Hollywood to do away with the superfluous love angle in action flicks, but if they’re not going to give these ladies roles of substance, the least they could do is hire more than just a pretty face. The only way to avoid suffering through her performance is to enjoy the schadenfreude.

But, schadenfreude isn’t enough to make this a watchable shitty movie. Rather, this is high Hollywood dreck, from just before Marvel and Disney figured out the formula with 2008’s Iron Man.

Shitty movie fans can normally expect more out of a Nicolas Cage joint. He is always ready and willing to dial up a performance for the ages, and it’s only the films that fail him. Somehow, Mark Steven Johnson and company managed to surround Cage with a film that is more vapid than inept, and that’s a shame, because there was so much potential. After all, how can a shitty movie go wrong when the Ghost Rider’s first four lines, and I shit you not, are:

  • “Back to hell!”
  • “You’re going down!”
  • “Hey, dirtbag!”
  • “Sorry, all out of mercy!”

That’s gold, Jerry. Gold! Unless it’s not. Ghost Rider tumbles down the Watchability Index, landing among other disappointments such as Escape from L.A. and Deep Rising, at #98.

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