Ghost Rider is one of those comic book entities that I would classify as a ‘fringe character’. You may have seen and heard of him but his exposure to the broad public – up until this time – has been fairly limited.

He’s a characters that has/had the potential to become an indie rebel of sorts in a film market saturated by his more popular and more obviously heroic brethren (Spiderman and in another universe, Batman). Sadly, this film does not help him very far along this path.

Young Johnny Blaze (Matt Long) sells his soul to an evil entity known as Mephistopheles (Peter Fonda) in order to save his terminally ill father from cancer. However, shortly after the contract has been signed Johnny’s father dies in a motorcycle stunt and the young Blaze is forced to run from his hometown – and the love of his life – because of the curse he has brought upon himself. Years later, Blaze (Nicolas Cage), now a world famous stunt motorcyclist, is approached again by Mephistopheles to become his rider – an über cool hitman with a flaming skull and motorcycle to boot – in exchange for the return of his soul.

Ghost Rider could have been an amazing piece of comic book cinema, with dark characters and an anti-hero who could have had one of the most unique looks seen on screen for a long time. Unfortunately, director Mark Steven Johnson (Daredevil) takes no specific direction with either his look or story and Ghost Rider quickly devolves from man-with-flaming-skull to flaming piece of crap.

There is simply no vision here. With the Wild West styled origins of the Ghost Rider myth the film was screaming to be presented in a manner reminiscent of an old John Wayne or Eastwood film. This, of course, is my interpretation but my point is that Johnson shows no creativity in a medium, and genre, that provide many opportunities to do so. It’s – for lack of a better phrase – a paint-by-numbers affair.

With stock characters, pathetically tepid henchmen that serve absolutely no purpose or present no challenge to Blaze (worse than those seen in Elektra – which Johnson also produced), horrible digital effects that make the Ghost Rider look silly, stunts that are limp, and performances – particularly from Eva Mendes – that are grating to watch, Ghost Rider is a tragic wait-for-video release.

The only thing that I found admirable about the film was Nicolas Cage’s enthusiasm in his portrayal of Blaze. Being a hard-core comic book fan (he named his second child Kal-El and changed his own name, from Coppola to Cage – apparently inspired by Marvel character Luke Cage) he throws himself into a role that he is too old and completely miscast for.

His excitement, however, does lend a certain amount of goofy charm to the film and certainly makes it more bearable. It seems like he had fun and this does rub off, ever so slightly.

Sadly, it’s when Blaze’s transformation from mere mortal into the rider takes place that things really fall apart. Cage’s own voice is replaced with a gnarling rasp that tries to make the accompanying visuals seem meaner but one that distances you from the human Blaze. The character becomes someone else completely instead of remaining the same person with a curse.

Let’s hope that Mark Steven Johnson’s next venture into the world of comic book adaptations is better – or perhaps that he doesn’t ever attempt one again. Ghost Rider is a tepid holiday season film for kids rather than anything that will appeal to comic book fans or adult filmgoers. Think the mess that was Daredevil – but worse.

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