Ghost Rider

Ghost Rider (2006)
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Eva Mendes, Peter Fonda, Sam Elliot, Donal Logue
Extras: Commentary Tracks, Multi-part Featurette
Rating:

Like it or not, comic book movies are hot right now, and it seems like a new one is coming out every week. Following his big-screen version of "Daredevil, " director Mark Steven Johnson has adapted Marvel Comics' "Ghost Rider" for the screen. As a story that was subject to various incarnations over several decades, Johnson was able to tinker around with the character a bit to create something different and still faithful for the film. Blending elements of action, horror, and the Western genres, the end result is a film that manages to be fun even as it revels in stupidity.

After a brief prologue explaining the myth of the Ghost Rider – a possessed cowboy who cheated the devil out of a contract worth 1,000 evil souls – the film jumps to late 20th century Texas where a hotshot teen named Johnny Blaze performs motorcycle stunts with his father. With his beautiful girlfriend about to move away, Johnny proposes they run away together and elope. Discovering that his father has cancer, however, he becomes less certain about his hasty decision. As fate would have it, Johnny is paid a nightly visit by the devil himself (Peter Fonda), who offers to heal his father in exchange for Johnny's soul. Johnny unwittingly agrees, and sure enough, his father is back to normal the next morning. With that worry lifted off his chest, Johnny decides to leave with his girlfriend, but his father's sudden death in a motorcycle accident – brought on by the devil – causes him to abandon this idea and forget about love forever.

Several years later, the now-grown Johnny (Nicolas Cage) is a celebrity motorcyclist, à la Evel Knievel, who still lives with the guilt over his father's death. To keep his mind at ease, he eats jelly beans, listens to The Carpenters, and watches TV shows about monkeys. I kid you not. About to attempt his most ambitious stunt yet, he is unexpectedly interviewed by the girl he left behind years ago, Roxanne (Eva Mendes). Now a successful, though seemingly inept, reporter, Roxanne has not forgiven him for leaving her. He still has feelings for her, but just as she comes back into his life, so does the devil, formally known as Mephistopheles. He makes Johnny his new Ghost Rider, a "bounty hunter" of sorts, who transforms into a burning skeleton and collects new souls for hell.

Adding a little fuel to the fire, Mephistopheles' rebellious and defiant son Blackheart (Wes Bentley) comes to Earth in search of the 150-year-old contract the former Ghost Rider kept from the devil. With this, he hopes to take over the world and usurp his father's power to become the ultimate evil ruler. Not wishing to be outdone by his son, Mephistopheles offers to give Johnny his soul back on the condition that he destroys Blackheart and his hellish sidekicks. Johnny agrees, but secretly sets out to take control over his powers in order to eventually use them against Mephistopheles and work for good.

Special effects reign supreme in this flick that is short on plot and characterization. I suppose that's to be expected in a film in which the hero's head turns into a flaming skull any time he uses his powers. The effects are spectacular, to be sure. So spectacular, in fact, that virtually all of the non-CGI scenes are comparatively dull. Much of this is due to the writing, which frequently seems aggressively amateurish. The dialogue is about as hokey as it gets, but I get the feeling that it was meant to be. Take the scene in which the grown Johnny decides to take control of his powers by addressing the fire element within him. He simply says, "I am addressing the fire element within me." And presto! He has control! This kind of goofy humor clashes badly with the darker elements of the story, and this movie is dark. Director Johnson said he was aiming for a "Gothic Western," and that aptly describes the atmosphere generated throughout most of the third act. With desert vistas and villains draped in black dusters, Johnson conveys a spaghetti Western by way of Hammer Studios.

The acting works, to a certain degree, on sort of a campy level that compliments the humor. As Mephistopheles, Peter Fonda seems to be invoking a raspy Jack Nicholson. Wes Bentley is appropriately sinister as Blackheart, though at times he seems more bratty than evil. Sam Elliott gives the best performance in the movie as a mysterious mentor known only as "Caretaker." He tends the graveyard where the original Ghost Rider is allegedly buried with the coveted contract. Sadly, the weakest performances are given by the two leads. The title role gives Nicolas Cage plenty of opportunities to go over the top, but he just seems hammy, especially in comparison with the brooding quality of Matt Long as the younger Johnny. Why Eva Mendes made it into the movie only God knows. She can't act, she's ugly and she turns ever dress she wears into a potato sack.

In spite of the acting and script problems, "Ghost Rider" still manages to be a pretty enjoyable diversion if you don't hold it under close scrutiny. Or better yet, any scrutiny. In his audio commentary, Johnson discusses his relationship with the critics, who complained that the film was not serious enough. His response was that he was making a comic book movie, not an art film. This may well be, but although his intentions may have been good, Johnson's comments are a direct slap in the face to many comic book fans who take their reading very seriously. Recent films like "Spider-Man 2" and "Batman Begins" have set a pretty high bar for comic book movies, and Johnson's pandering not only indicates a laziness on his part, but a considerable disrespect for his audience and underestimation of their intelligence. As it stands, the Ghost Rider is not a thinking man's superhero, but for its terrific visuals and fast-paced action sequences, I was left entertained, if only in a superficial way.

This Blu-Ray version features the 123-minute extended cut of the film Most of the 10-minutes of added scenes are exposition, adding a little more depth to the characters and their situations. Remarkably, in his commentary, Johnson flat out admits that the majority of the added footage was not needed at all and that the film generally works better without it. So, why make an extended version? To re-sell the product to people, of course.

Sony Pictures Home Entertainment's 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer on the other hand is amazing with its incredible level of detail and definition. The color reproduction and black levels are marvelous making the film a visual feast to observe. Much of the movie plays during the night and the bold color highlights – such as the flaming Ghost Rider – are amazing to behold. The contrast is meticulous and with its solid blacks, the shadows are rendered absolutely solid, giving the image good visual depth. But also daylight scenes and the carnival sequences are wonderfully rich in hues and texture bringing out the best of this high definition transfer.

The disc contains a losslessly compressed Dolby Digital TrueHD track along with an uncompressed 5.1 PCM track. This is the absolute high end of audio presentations, of course, as these are both exactly reproducing the audio master of the film. "Ghost rider" features a modern and aggressive sound track that makes constant use of the surround channels. It has an incredibly aggressive bass extension also, sure to shake your house to the foundation. Whether it's the pyrotechnic, the action sequences or the sound of the motorcycle, this track is at the top of its game constantly. Dialogues are well integrated nonetheless and remain always understandable.
The disc contains two separate commentary tracks. The first one features director Mark Steven Johnson and visual effects supervisor Kevin Mack. Mack's participation is only sensible considering that his effects are the true stars of this picture. The track contains some great information but is a tad too hot for my taste, especially as neither of them had proper time to reflect on the film and are still audible pumped up about the film – not to say extremely biased and happy with it.

The second commentary features producer Gary Foster, who is considerably more subdued but also relays a lot of good information. I actually found Foster's to be the more interesting, as he touched on many elements surrounding the film's production and not just on the actual filming. Both are definitely worth a listen, however.

The commentaries are followed up by a multi-part featurette. The first part, "Spirit of Vengeance" (29 min.) is dealing with general casting and production, "Spirit of Adventure" (30 min.) focuses largely on the conception of the hero's motorcycle and stunt scenes, and the third part, "Spirit of Execution" (23 min.) is shedding some light on the movie's post-production. Featuring interviews with cast and crew and containing loads of behind-the-scenes footage, these are enlightening and entertaining segments.

Sadly the Blu-Ray version does not include some of the bonus materials found on the 2-disc DVD, such as the "Sin & Salvation" multi-part featurette.

"Ghost Rider" is clearly not one of the greatest comic book adaptations we have seen around but it's not the worst either. It is a pure popcorn movie that washes over you with its visuals and fast-paced action. The presentation on this Blu-Ray disc is marvelous and brings out the best of the movie, making it a great disc to show to friends to impress them. Just check your brain at the door and don't expect too much and you should have a good time.

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