A few days ago, Ghost Rider star Nicolas Cage made news by defending his appearance in a film based on a comic book by summoning up names like Goethe and Thomas Mann, and talking about comics' potential to reintroduce timeless themes in a "pop-art contemporary manner." And he's absolutely right. Or he would be if he were talking about Batman Begins or the Spider-Man series, recent comic-book adaptations that got both the spectacle and the depth right. But he couldn't have been talking about Ghost Rider.
Cage is a comic-book fan from way back (he has a son named Kal-El, and his own stage name comes from Marvel hero Luke Cage), and he's circled around comics-inspired movie projects for years. Too bad he landed on this one, which reinvents a bizarre Marvel hero born of a 1970s enthusiasm for motorcycle-stunt heroics. Director Mark Steven Johnson previously botched an adaptation of Daredevil by being unable to decide what kind of movie he wanted to make. Here, that isn't a problem, assuming he set out solely to make the kind that fills moviegoers with buyers' remorse.
Played in the opening scenes by young actor Matt Long, future Ghost Rider Johnny Blaze inadvertently brokers a deal with Mephistopheles (Peter Fonda) to save his father from cancer, only to watch his dad die in a motorcycle crash the next day. (There's always a catch with those supernatural pacts, isn't there?) Understandably upset, he embarks on a career of daredevil stunt-riding, gaining fame and fortune by jumping across football fields. But when Fonda comes calling, Cage gets transformed into a supernatural force for vengeance with a flaming skull-head and the ability to ride his motorcycle up the side of skyscrapers.
Any potential the film had for making pop art in a contemporary manner is drained away by the familiar demands of second-tier action blockbusters. Cage has some fun with the role, making Blaze a kind of Zen Elvis with a strange fixation on Carpenters songs, but the film's priorities lie with the digital effects and not the story, and even the effects aren't that hot. Eventually, Ghost Rider devolves into a long fight between Fonda's even more evil son Blackheart (Wes Bentley) and Ghost Rider, with Cage largely disappearing to make room for a CGI flaming skull. At least they got the cheekbones right.