With both of us having Presidents Day off, my son and I thought we'd take in the new Ghost Rider movie. I went into it having read a number of reviews from comic fans and non-fans alike, many of whom gave it a qualified "good, but cheesy" or "entertaining despite the goofiness" kind of review.
Well, after seeing the movie, I'll definitely confirm the cheesy and goofy elements....but at the same time, isn't that what the Ghost Rider character was always supposed to be? In other words, this was one hell of a faithful adaptation to film (pun intended).After all, Ghost Rider's supernatural cycle first roared to life at the height of motorcycle stuntman Evel Knievel's popularity in the early 1970's, while at the same time capitalizing on pop culture's renewed interest in the supernatural. Right from the start, Ghost Rider was never intended to embody the elegant frights of Victorian literature, but instead became an almost "patron saint" of a uniquely American supernatural genre.
What would that be, exactly?
Well, it's that wonderfully "caricatured" brand of the supernatural we see at a traveling carnival's haunted house or the extravagant ghouls tatooing the arms of its toothless Carnies. It's the cartoonish demonology of heavy metal bands or the intricate painted flames adorning hell-powered muscle cars. It's the paradoxically plainly silly yet undeniably cool sound of a rumbling Harley engine or a testosterone-fueled drag race a few blocks down. A world where Bon Jovi-spawned demons follow rules, sign contracts and wear fashionable floor-length leather coats.
It's this bizarre hybrid of "Trailer Park Gothic" and Harley-culture machismo that I think the Ghost Rider movie perfectly captures and celebrates. Nicolas Cage delivers an eccentric, Elvis-channeling Johnny Blaze, while Peter Fonda (the Easy Rider himself) plays a convincing "gentleman devil" archetype. Eva Mendes pulls off the near-impossible as a compassionate, intelligent love interest while simultaneously looking like a NASCAR Cleavage Queen. Bringing his trademark cowboy gravitas to the cast was Sam Elliot, imparting his mumbled wisdom to Johnny "Bonehead" Blaze.
Director Mark Steven Johnson (who also directed the unfairly-maligned Daredevil) completely understood the tricky balance he needed to strike between camp and cool, which his brisk pacing of the film helped to pull off. Slow moments of introspection and "high art" would have not only made the goofier elements that much more conspicuous, but would also completely miss the point of the Ghost Rider character itself, much like Ang Lee's pretentious "Hulk" movie did a few years back. No, Johnson seemed to know we weren't here for deep existential insights into the duality of man, or to explore the mysteries and contradictions of faith, and...instead.....gave us an exhilerating, pedal-to-the-metal ride through a garish CGI spookhouse.
So, if you're looking for the glacially-paced horrors of M. Night Shyamalan movies or the "weirdness in the nooks and crannies of the everyday world" stories of Stephen King...this movie isn't for you. However, if you "get the joke" when it comes to the high-octane carnival of screaming hell-cycles and flaming skulls wearing studded leather and pocket chains...step right up.
Rating: Three out of four Flaming Skulls for Ghost Rider