Thursday, 15 February 2007

Ghost Rider (2007)

Nicolas Cage knows he's in a trashy movie and he's enjoying it

I've had enough of serious superhero movies, with stoic characters with chiselled looks burdened with saving the world from a certain disaster while still having the time to make grand speeches about the responsibilities of being a hero. As far as I'm concerned, all the complex moralities with superherohood should be thrown away, because all I want is to watch an enjoyable flick without being preached at and without its hero (or heroes) looking moody because theirs is a dark, serious and dramatic character. If like me, you are disappointed with last year's Superman Returns, or wish a reprieve from the ultra-realistic, psychological Batman Begins-style superhero films, then Ghost Rider is just what you need. Ghost Rider is a whole load of fun because it doesn't take itself seriously, and there's no way Mark Steven Johnson could make a serious and dark drama based on a premise that a motorcycle stuntman transforms into a tough-talking, leather clad, flaming skeleton without us snickering at him.

Instead, Johnson's establishes Ghost Rider as an old school comic book movie - campy and deliberately cheesy, Ghost Rider will make you think how what an excellent "bad" movie it is. It's the sort of fun feel you get from reading old Dr Strange comics where the hero had to battle spandex-clad villains with portentous, sinister names, Flash Gordon radio dramas, or the original Highlander movie. Like all these great classics, Ghost Rider has a dialogue that is deliberately "awful", yet strangely appropriate for the atmosphere of its pulpy plot, which revolves around one Johnny Blaze, a motorcycle stuntman who, having sold his soul to save the life of his father, becomes a servant of the demonic Mephisopheles. That Johnny Blaze is the titular hero of the Ghost Rider movie, and as a result of being a liege to the demon, is virtually unkillable - something that surely benefits his career as a daredevil stuntman. However, when an even more dangerous demon seeks to imperile the world, Mephistopheles calls in the debt on the reluctant and remorseful Blaze, turns him into the flaming Ghost Rider, and even granting him powers to punish the wicked. Now, that's what I call a good old fashioned pulp plot, which has none of the failings of movies like Daredevil, where too many sideplots happen all at once, or Constantine, where too many plotlines from the original comic series are compressed into the space of a feature movie.

Like I said, only in the most old school of pulp fantasy comics will you get a setup where a superpowered servant of a major demon acts for all purposes on the side of good! I've already mentioned the classic"bad" dialogue and setup, but what's more important is the portrayal of Johnny Blaze/Ghost Rider by Nicholas Cage. Detractors may say that Cage is an actor who has only 3 types of facial expressions that he uses throughout his movies: the intense/tortured look (think Leaving Las Vegas), the hangdog expression (any movie where Cage's character has a romance), and the insane look, accompanied by maniacal laughing (think Castor Troy in Face/Off), but in Ghost Rider, when Cage unleashes nothing more than those 3 facial expressions, it is more than appropriate: it is exactly how you'd expect a pulp hero like Ghost Rider to behave. In Cage's performance, there are no pretensions to nobility of spirit, but a simple joy in acting out a simple role in a larger-than-life manner that was last seen in Kevin Spacey's similar portrayal of Bobby Darin in Under the Sea.

Perhaps it's a good thing that motion picture technology has improved since the 1970s, when good pulpy hero movies were made. The special effects in Ghost Rider are solid without being gimmicky or flashy, and are effectively used to bring to life the fantastic powers of the Ghost Rider, such as his flaming attire and motorcycle, transformation, and his special power, the Penance Stare.

All things considered, if you're in the mood for a superhero movie that's well-written and acted, and yet doesn't take itself too seriously, Ghost Rider is just the thing for you. You'll probably be slightly embarrassed at how much you'd enjoy this trashy pulp movie, but it's okay - I enjoyed myself too!

First published at incinemas on 15 February 2007

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