"If someone makes a mistake—a big mistake—do you think they should have to pay for it every day for the rest of their life?" ponders Johnny Blaze (Nicolas Cage). Or does he deserve "a second chance"?
Carter Slade (Sam Elliott) is sure Blaze deserves a second chance—even if his "mistake" was selling his soul to a devil named Mephistopheles (Peter Fonda) in order to save a loved one dying from cancer. "You did it for the right reason," Slade assures Blaze, "and that means you've got God on your side."
Well, that's a nice thought. In supernatural comic-book movies, though, "God's side" can be a pretty abstract concept, especially compared to, well, the other side. Religious references and iconography are allowed, yet as the powers of hell run amok on the earth, the powers of heaven seem distant and uninvolved.
In Hellboy, the villain went so far as to taunt one of the heroes about how "your God remains silent" while the villain's "god" was active in the world. Constantine at least had angels around, although they seemed impotent and passive compared to the demons. (In one scene demons kill a priest right in front of an angel, who can only comfort him as he dies, and another major angelic figure turned out to be a dangerous wacko.) Then there's Spawn, in which a damned soul subverts hell's plans to attack heaven, without much evident support from heaven itself.
An early Ghost Rider storyline in the comic books featured a startling contrast to this general principle: In Ghost Rider #9, Johnny Blaze is granted his "second chance" by no less than Jesus Christ himself, who delivers Blaze from the Devil's clutches, saying, "Johnny Blaze's soul is beyond you, Satan. He has earned his second chance."
Writer Tony Isabella, who developed the story in that 1973 issue, has observed that there were "plenty of Satan avatars active in the Marvel Universe, but precious little evidence of the loyal opposition." (Isabella planned to have Blaze become a Christian and be delivered from the Devil's power, but this was squelched, and even Jesus' appearance later reinterpreted, apparently at the insistence of controversial editor-in-chief Jim Shooter.)
Filmmaker Mark Steven Johnson knows the Ghost Rider mythos backward and forward, and has synthesized elements from four decades of different comic-book series about characters called Ghost Rider, not all of which were originally connected, into a single story.
Yet in a story that finds room for (I think) six to eight different demonic figures (depending whether you count the two Ghost Riders), once again the powers of heaven are present in name and image only. God may be on Johnny Blaze's side, but he doesn't seem to be doing blazes to help him against the forces of darkness arrayed against him. Once they've been cast out of heaven, it seems the only thing fallen angels have to fear on the face of the earth is someone badder than they are.
Depictions of St. Michael casting down Satan are seen more than once, and we're told that four of the demonic characters were cast out of heaven by Michael himself. There's also a Spanish priest who defensively raises the crucifix of his rosary against a demon named Blackheart (Wes Bentley), apparently to no effect. (We never learn happens to the priest, but Blackheart, who has just finished lighting a rack of candles in a church, doesn't seem intimidated by sacred things. Perplexingly, the movie elsewhere assures us that the demons "can't go on sacred ground.")
As he did in Daredevil, Johnson distills elements from multiple versions of his source material into an eclectic story peppered with homages and asides that diehard fans may appreciate. Johnson's interest in his subject is palpable, and it's not hard to believe that Nicolas Cage, a lifelong comic book fan and motorcycle enthusiast, relished the role of Johnny Blaze, and lobbied hard for the part. This isn't Fantastic Four, a film so woefully adrift from its origins that it seems to have been made by people who never actually read a comic book.
Yet for all their evident interest and affinity for the material, the filmmakers haven't made a very good movie. They've figured out how to get Blaze (Cage), the motorcycle-riding hellion who makes a deal with the devil, into the same picture as Carter Slade (Sam Elliott), the originally unconnected (and not even supernatural) Ghost Rider of the Old West. But they haven't figured out either who Johnny Blaze is as a character, or what the Ghost Rider is all about.
On the Johnny Blaze side, the comic-book character has long been seen as a tortured soul living in the shadow of a Jekyll-and-Hyde curse in which he must share his life with an uncontrollable figure of evil. The movie, though, defers the Ghost Rider's first appearance for decades after Blaze's initial deal with the devil.
An Evel Knievel-type motorcycle stunt rider, Blaze spends his life pursuing ever more suicidal stunts in an effort to prove to himself that his life is still his own. Ever fearful of the fate that hangs over his head, he flees from his lifelong love, Roxanne Simpson (Eva Mendes, displaying more cleavage per minute of screentime than any actress in recent memory). Yet it seems that Blaze can't die, for Mephisto wants him alive. "You got something more than luck," says a crew member, shaking his head. "You got an angel looking out for you."
"Maybe it's something else," Blaze mutters to himself. A wittier movie might have remembered that demons are fallen angels, and so Blaze does have an angel looking out him, after a fashion. (The film misses the same opportunity later when Blackheart shows up at a biker bar, for no apparent reason, and is told that admission is "Angels only." "You got a problem with that?" the biker asks menacingly. "Actually, I do," Blackheart answers, passing on the chance to say, "Actually, I am an angel.")
In the comic books, the Ghost Rider has long been understood as a figure of vengeance, a hellion whose wrath is directed at punishing the guilty. The classic incarnation had a mystic "hellfire" power that could scald the soul without harming the flesh, while a later version added a "penance stare" power that works like the contraposto perditions of Dante's Inferno, inflicting back on the wicked the weight and suffering of their own sins.
The movie includes this, but essentially as a sidebar. Ghost Rider gives hell to a random street thug, and later to a jail cell full of brutal prisoners (though he spares one terrified prisoner, declaring him innocent). Later, the Ghost Rider finds a way to use his power against his archenemy Blackheart, even though the latter is a demon and has no soul to burn.
But the idea of punishing the guilty just doesn't figure much into a story that doesn't have any human villains for the Ghost Rider to punish. Instead, the plot is driven by a war in hell between Mephistopheles and his brat kid Blackheart, who are battling over a supernatural MacGuffin, a contract for the souls of an entire town of damned souls.
It seems this contract was snatched out of Mephistopheles' hand 150 years ago by the Carter Slade Ghost Rider, and now Blackheart is after it. For reasons that seem murky at best, this contract, and the damned souls it commands, may give Blackheart the power to claim the entire earth as his own. Go figure.
In this war of powers and principalities, the Ghost Rider's role as a punisher of human wickedness is subordinated to a new job description invented for the film: the devil's "bounty hunter," or rather goon squad. Mephistopheles sends the Ghost Rider after Blackheart and his squad of fallen angels, and the film becomes a series of devil-on-devil smackdowns.
There are also a series of vehicular chases in which the police chase Ghost Rider by car, helicopter and so forth. This is the best Johnson could do with a fiery, chopper-riding skeleton that punishes the wicked—put him in chase scenes and have him duke it out with other supernatural beings? What a wasted opportunity.Discussion starters
- Do people deserve a "second chance"? When do they or don't they?
- Does Johnny deserve a "second chance"? Does he get one? If so, what does he make good use of it?
- The idea that "If you don't make a choice, the choice makes you" crops up more than once in the film. What do you think this means?
- Does Johnny Blaze make a meaningful choice during his first encounter with Mephistopheles? How does this affect the rest of the story? Does he make a meaningful choice during his final encounter with Mephistopheles? Is it a good choice or a bad choice? Why?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Ghost Rider is rated PG-13 for horror violence and disturbing images. The film's fantasy premise involves stylized action-movie demonic imagery, including several gruesome supernatural killings. There is also some rough language, including at least one taking of Jesus' name in vain. And one of the lead female characters shows lots of cleavage.
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Copyright © 2007 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet
from Film Forum, 02/22/07
Is Nicolas Cage America's most versatile leading man?
When he arrived on the scene, he charmed as an idiosyncratic character actor with a flair for comedy in films like Vampire's Kiss, Moonstruck, and the classic Coen Brothers romp Raising Arizona. Since then, he's been an action hero (The Rock, National Treasure), a villain (Face/Off), and even the frustrated screenwriting genius Charlie Kaufman (Adaptation).
For years there have been rumors that Cage was seeking a different kind of role … a comic book character. And while his character in Ghost Rider is not exactly Superman (reports have claimed he pursued that part), it's certainly supernatural.
For director Mark Steven Johnson, Cage plays Johnny Blaze, a daredevil motorcyclist who has made a bargain with the devil (an orange-eyed Peter Fonda). As a skull-headed hunter named Ghost Rider, he must pursue and round up demons who have broken out of hell. When he's on the job, flames burst from his face, and he rides a fiery bike that would cause serious problems if it ever stopped at a gas station.
Bob Hoose (Plugged In) is bothered by the film's implications about embracing evil to fight evil. "The film seems to say it wants to be about standing against evil and rooting for second chances—with Johnny seeking any opportunity to make up for the bad choices of his past. But cursory (and perverse) nods to God only serve to remind us of how ridiculous and ugly the ghost rider's world is. … Second chances come to those who fight for them, and when push comes to shove, only the devil's power is strong enough to defeat evil. Huh?"
David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) notes the movie's "dumb script and risible theology," but finds it to be "sufficiently diverting B-movie fare." He adds, "Some parents may find the demonic elements problematic, but it's little more than a comic book retelling of 'Faust,' and, while of greater concern that vengeance, not justice, is meted out by Blaze, love is ultimately shown to be stronger than evil, with a recurring theme of redemption and second chances."
Michael Brunk (Past the Popcorn) says, "Even if they had pulled off the digital performance of Ghost Rider the character, the other nail in the coffin of Ghost Rider the movie is the action. This is, after all, a movie about a comic book hero of sorts. You'd expect big, over the top action sequences. You can expect it, but what you'll get here is pretty tepid stuff."
Mainstream critics say this cycle has a flat, and are rating it just as poorly as they did the director's previous comic book movie—Daredevil.