“Yeah, I’m good. I feel like my skull is on fire, but I’m good.”
It’s been a few weeks since we’ve jumped into the mind of the one and only Nicolas Cage so I’ve had plenty of time to think about what film from his stacked catalog that I wanted to feature for this week. Naturally, I chose Ghost Rider.
Ghost Rider is the story of Johnny Blaze (Cage), a stunt cyclist who gives up his soul to save his stunt cyclist father (Brett Cullen). At the time of the transaction Blaze’s father has cancer and the purchasing party, a mysterious supernatural being named Mephistopheles (Peter Fonda), claims he can cure it. Mephistopheles holds true to that claim and cures cancer, but unfortunately, Blaze’s father ends up dying that same day in a terrible accident from a stunt gone wrong. Hey, Mephistopheles only said he’d save him from cancer, nothing about keeping him alive. You gotta read the fine print, Johnny!
Immediately after nothing really happens to Johnny. Mephistopheles prevents him from running off with his girlfriend Roxanne (Eva Mendes) which is a bummer but his soul seems to be fine. Johnny spends the next few years perfecting his craft and becoming a world famous stunt cyclist. People go nuts for Team Blaze and they should because Johnny is able to defy the laws of physics with some of his extreme stunts. He also enjoys Mountain Dew and Doritos, probably. This never actually comes up in the movie but I think we can safely assume.
Mephistopheles seems to be gone. Johnny doesn’t see him for a long time, but he does wonder if maybe Mephistopheles has played some role in his ability to bounce up, injury free, from accidents that would kill most mortal men. When Mephistopheles does finally show himself again it’s because he needs Johnny to stop Blackheart (Wes Bentley), who happens to be the son of the Devil. This is about the time when Johnny realizes that giving up his soul has turned him into Ghost Rider!
My Ghost Rider knowledge outside of the films is quite limited, so I have no clue how close the story in the movie parallels what fans know from the comics. I do know that the main baddie is named Mephisto in the comics, so not sure why it was changed to a longer name for the movie. I also know that Ghost Rider is one of the darker comic book characters which makes film adaptations hard since younger audiences tend to be the target demographic. Even without knowing much Ghost Rider was a movie I was super pumped to see in 2007 because…well, I don’t need to tell you why.
I saw the film in theaters and then before writing this piece I had probably seen it 2 or 3 more times over the last 10 years. My initial thought was it’s not very good, but it’s enjoyable. I still told people back in 2007 that it was a top 3 superhero movie because of Cage. I regret nothing. Watching it earlier this week and my general thoughts are roughly the same. It’s still not good and I still have a blast watching it, but I think I now have a better understanding of why it wasn’t very good and it serves as a pretty good example as to why movies are hard to make.
Sony produced the two Ghost Rider films and going into this first one they did have a pretty good track record with comic book adaptations. According to numbers from Box Office Mojo, Ghost Rider was the 43rd comic book adaptation to hit screens dating back to 1978. 6 of those 43 movies were Sony productions — Men In Black, Spider-Man, Men In Black II, Hellboy, Spider-Man 2 and Ghost Rider. At the time of Ghost Rider’s release, 4 of those 6 movies were in the top 9 highest grossing comic book adaptations of all time with Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2 holding down the top spots. So the box office numbers were clearly strong for Sony at the time and the reviews weren’t bad either. Spider-Man 2 is still regularly brought up when discussing the best comic book adaptations of all time.
All the pieces and history were in place for a great movie. Cage as Johnny Blaze/Ghost Rider is awesome and the rest of the cast consisting of Mendes, Fonda, Bentley and freakin’ Sam Elliot is rad. I mean come on, this movie has Cage, Fonda, and Elliot! Those are titans.
So what the heck went wrong?
Hiring Mark Steven Johnson to write and direct was probably the first mistake. At least that was my initial thought. Johnson had only directed two films prior — Simon Birch and Daredevil — one of those is pretty good and the other not so much. Unfortunately, the bad one is the more relevant title. Still, I actually think Johnson does an OK job, at least from the directing standpoint. And after watching a bunch of the special features on the Blu-ray, of which there are plenty, I have more of an appreciation for what he did or at least tried to do.
Johnson had a big role in the casting of the film and there he succeeded. The cast is fantastic and I don’t think there’s any arguing that. Johnson also had a very intriguing vision he was going for, one that if successful would have been amazing. On some of the behind-the-scenes footage, Johnson discussed his influences for the movie. His goal was to make something that was a cross between a Spaghetti Western and a Hammer Horror film. Knowing that information upon revisiting the film and I could clearly see that influence in the final product. It doesn’t all work and isn’t executed perfectly, but I totally get that Spaghetti Western/Hammer Horror vibe and that’s pretty cool.
In my opinion, the two biggest issues are that Ghost Rider is probably best suited to an R-rated movie and it should probably be animated. This is a darker, more violent character. And while the movie is certainly violent I think you’d see better results by pulling back the restrictions and really letting loose.
Going animated seems like a no-brainer to me. Ghost Rider is a dude with a head that is a flaming skull for crying out loud! That’s not easy to portray in live-action. It requires a ton of CGI that is very expensive. The CGI in Ghost Rider not only doesn’t hold up, which is sad because it’s merely 10 years old, but it didn’t look all that great back then. When your main character spends a large chunk of the movie being CGI and the CGI doesn’t look good, that’s a problem. You either need much better CGI or you can go animated. I’d go animated.
I’d venture to say most people would agree with the issues I’ve pointed out, but it feels like even more people view Cage as one of the main problems, if not the main problem. Ghost Rider, along with Wicker Man, seems to be the movies that shifted the general population’s view of Cage as an actor. Despite my admiration for Cage, I do get that, at least on some level. Wicker Man and Ghost Rider were back-to-back movies that not only failed to be successful but featured some insane Cage moments, even by his already insane standards. Even with that insanity, I think Cage is a damn good Johnny Blaze.
Cage was born to play Ghost Rider. His love affair with comics is well documented and if the massive tattoo on his left arm is any indication Ghost Rider is a personal favorite.
“I would play on my bike and I guess accept the postulate, when I was 8, that I was Ghost Rider,” Cage said on a behind-the-scenes Blu-ray feature. “You don’t get any cooler than a motorcyclist, stunt cyclist dressed head to toe in black leather with a flaming skull for a head. It’s a great, iconic visual image.”
Side note: I love that Cages uses the word “postulate.”
Johnny Blaze is a more complicated character than he appears on the surface. Once his father dies he sort of develops two different personalities. As a performer, he’s a showman, borderline cocky. But as a person he’s very brooding and why wouldn’t he be. He loses his girlfriend and father on the same day. You need an actor that can pull both these off at once. Cage is capable of doing so.
Then there’s the Cage style. Even those that hate Cage have to admit he has style and it’s perfect for Blaze.
“When you meet Nic and see the clothes he wears, he dresses like Johnny Blaze,” director Johnson quips on a making-of feature for Ghost Rider. “He has said to me before that this character is closer to anything he’s ever played to himself.”
The transformation scene is what seems to stick with people. Even if you haven’t seen the movie you’ve probably seen some portion of this scene. It’s the first time he turns into Ghost Rider. It’s been turned into countless memes and the GIF has been circulated all over the interweb.
Cage goes big in this scene, there’s no doubt about it. He makes all kinds of crazy facial expressions as he screams out. And it does look a bit silly but that doesn’t make it ineffective. He seems to be going through a painful experience that his body doesn’t understand. Reminds me a bit of David Naughton in An American Werewolf in London.
The issue with this scene and why it seems to get lambasted so much is more about the CGI and less about Cage. At least that’s what it looks like to me. This is the first moment in the film with heavy CGI use and like said it’s not great. What Cage is doing is pretty standard Cage. He’s basically been doing a variation of that since Valley Girl. And by that I mean he goes for it.
My final thoughts on Ghost Rider are it’s better than people think it is, but unfortunately, it’s still not very good. It’s entertaining and it has its heart in the right place but sometimes it takes more than that. Knowing how bad and how long Cage wanted to make a superhero movie does make this all the more unfortunate. I am able to take solace, however, in the fact that despite the film’s shortcomings it serves as another example of Cage leaving it all out on the line.