Friday, February 23, 2007

Ghost Rider: "A trifle idiotic"

FLAME ON! Oh, wait – that’s that other flamer. Well, you could see how a guy could get confused.

Tell the truth, though, there’s no way I don’t know who Ghost Rider is. Born with an unnatural fear of skeletons, I obsessed over Johnny Blaze clawing at his face burning off every time the plot called for it in the ‘70s comic. Though the idea of a satanic bounty hunter transmuting into a burning, chain-whipping skeleton man in a leather jacket on a bike made of Hellfire seems a trifle idiotic at this point, it’s just the kind of thing that ensured Generation X would never really grow up. From Howard the Duck to Pretty in Pink’s Duckie, our fledgling pop culture is simply too insane to let go of.
Now that CGI Hollywood is prepared to mine the Marvel and DC back issues, Ghost Rider seems like a perfect target. And, to cut to it, I loved it. Even though. Sigh. It’s pretty much terrible.

If there’s still a kid in you, you just get over lines like “I feel like my skull is on fire” and probably the second-worst worst sense of what a TV reporter actually might be and say (1998’s Godzilla owns the lowest). Nick Cage handles Johnny Blaze with a certain Garfield disaffectedness, but that seems right for a guy who knows the devil is coming for him one day. Speaking of whom, Peter Fonda does a strange and interesting performance as Mephisto, though I really miss the frilly comic-book outfit only alluded to in shadow. But Fonda manages to fuse trustworthy charm with singer Nick Cave’s “weak and evil” to good effect as he convinces Blaze to sign his soul over to save his dad from terminal cancer. Father and son are in a motorcycle duo which young Blaze would break up to ride off with his girlfriend, Roxanne. But hearing the medical news, Blaze is torn up enough to attract the devil. Mephistopheles keeps his word about the cancer; he just kills pop in a bike accident the next day anyway. Haha. Blaze ditches Roxanne, done with love’s price for now.

The restrained ‘70s/’80s carnival feel is perfectly captured here, especially as we fast forward to now – all tits and tattoos and shitty metal licks. No wonder the Islamists want us buried.
Mephisto’s defiant son Blackheart, played by the weirdo kid from American Beauty, is after a certain 1000-soul contract that’ll bring on hell on earth with a cherry on top – him. So the devil brings Ghost Rider into the picture to take out his own son, sort of the opposite of how Blaze got into this mess. But watching the stuntman transform is a treat especially as, finally, we get an antihero who enjoys himself, cackling like mad – finally freed from worry.

How well a CGI skull can act is up for debate; slightly better than super-hot Roxanne (Eva Mendes), anyway. And for dealing with a bunch of demons and devils, there’s never the same kind of chaotic terror you get, say, reading Master and Margarita. But, unlike Hulk and Spider-Man, the film’s a lot of fun. Especially when, as huge geek bonus, the original, cowboy Ghost Rider hoofs into the plot. Played by none other than The Big Lebowski's cud-chewin’ Sam Elliot.
As a film, extremely dumb - but hot, wild and fantasy-fulfilling. What, you snobs have never wanted to crawl into bed with something like that?

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