March 14, 2007

Ghost Rider (03/14/07)

Lettergrade: D, but it's one of the funniest movies of the year

So Laura calls just before she's about to leave work, and I tell her that I'm in the mood to see the worst so-bad-it's-funny shitpile in release right now. After perusing the local listings, we wound up selecting Ghost Rider.

Where do I start with this one? Maybe it's enough to say that at the right time and in the right company, this can be a highly entertaining movie. The time was right for me tonight: I pissed myself laughing during the whole picture. Some of the laugher was elicited through careful planning and execution by the filmmakers, but the majority simply came from how stupid and bad the whole movie is.

I don't think there's much point in getting into the plot, but I'll do it just in case. As a young man, Johnny Blaze (played as an adult by Nicolas Cage with an extremely ill-advised toupee) makes a deal with Mephistopheles (Peter Fonda) wherein his stunt-man father's cancer would be cured in exchange for Johnny's eternal soul. Johnny thinks this is a smart trade and viola! his dad is cured. He is abruptly killed, however, by a stunt gone bad shortly thereafter anyway, and Johnny then spends 20 years or something waiting for the day when Mephistopheles will show up to collect on the deal.

Cage plays the adult Johnny Blaze as a lazy, shiftless cypher with vague similarities to Elvis that include his diet, his entourage, and his lazy southern accent. When not performing mind-numbingly stupid Evel Knievel inspired stunts (such as jumping over a football field's length of big-rig 18 wheelers parked side by side), he's locked up in his shit-box apartment watching bad late-night television, eating jelly-beans, and listening to the same Carpenters song over and over again.

Soon, Wes Bentley shows up as the nefarious Blackheart, who is very dramatically revealed to be Mephistopheles' estranged son. Since we don't even really understand who the hell Mephistopheles is in the first place (other than that he's kinda like Satan, I guess), the revelation means very little to us. Nevertheless, the movie proceeds with the unveiling of this plot point as if it is as mind-blowing as the end of The Usual Suspects.

Blackheart wants some sort of artifact that will give him a bunch of indeterminate power which will presumably allow him to harm mankind in some nonspecific way. In response to this, Fonda calls on Cage to assume his mantle as the Ghost Rider and take Bentley and his minions out. The only thing noteworthy about his transformation -- apart from the classic Nicolas Cage scenery chewing it provides an excuse for -- is that the CG modeling on the Rider's skull when he's all lit up looks sort of like a jpeg from a bad heavy metal tribute page circa 1998. From that point on, things proceed pretty much as you might expect with few surprises along the way.

Several components of the movie are just plain weird. Whenever Fonda and Bentley have a meeting, for example, the editing style goes completely ape-shit, suggesting a scenario wherein the producers gave Andy Dick a month's supply of cocaine and locked him into the edit bay for a night.

Other scenes are absolutely flash-back crazy... such as the one where Johnny reunites with his childhood love (played as an adult by Eva Mendez). The picture actually dissolves back to a scene from earlier in the movie where we're looking at a younger actress who already looks exactly like Mendez before coming back to the present and continuing the scene. What... did the movie actually think we might not make that connection? On at least three other occasions, whenever Johnny thinks of his father we momentarily dissolve to his dad giving a speech that we already saw earlier in the movie. This serves no dramatic or thematic purpose and leads to no payoff later on... It's like there was some kind of post-production freak-out where someone decided that the movie had to be edited for people with virtually zero short-term memory retention.

A saving grace is Sam Elliott as the marginally-mysterious Caretaker. He's essentially the Ask Jeeves of the movie, and is conveniently around to explain the rules of Ghost Riding to Cage whenever some bulky exposition is needed. Late in the film it is revealed that Elliott used to be a Ghost Rider himself. He uses his last opportunity to "flame up" meerly to ride along-side Cage as he goes to his final confrontation with Bentley... not to actually help him defeat the guy or anything, just to ride next to him as he goes to do it.

The movie ends with Mephistopheles offering Cage the chance to be released from his Ghost Ridership once and for all. Cage turns him down, vowing instead to use his power against Mephistopheles himself, probably in a direct-to-video sequel. This, I assume, is the foundation on which Ghost Rider's adventures in the comic books are based. When the scene plays out in the movie, however, you can't help but marvel at how stupid he is for pissing off the devil so needlessly like that and denying himself a normal life and the opportunity to be with the woman he loves.

The movie never claims that Johnny Blaze is a quantum theorist or anything, but when the hero of your superhero movie makes decisions that would seem remarkably stupid even in a Larry The Cable Guy movie, you know you've got trouble.

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