Friday, February 16, 2007

Review in Chronicle gives Ghost Rider 2 1/2 stars (out of 4)

Los Angeles Daily News

Ghost Rider
has always been a second-tier Marvel Comics title, and there have been advantages as well as disadvantages to that. It's been able to get creepier and more peculiar over the years precisely because it didn't have to maintain an approach more popular titles such as Spider-Man and X-Men needed to nurture.

That said, it never really went all that mythically resonant, either. Satanic filigree and cowboy references aside, this literal hell's angel on wheels always seemed like a, well, ghost repeat of better-established Marvel characters.

So it's no surprise the Ghost Rider movie is just different enough from other superhero fare to be worth a look, but not a particularly stirring genre entry.

It follows fairly standard, troubled hero rules, mixed with some substandard horror-movie clich├ęs. But that's just half the story. The other half involves a full-blown Nicolas Cage oddball performance; he's more Vampire's Kiss than National Treasure here. Whether you like it, hate it or just don't get it, this at least makes Ghost Rider an intriguing, witty/nutso acting experiment from beginning to end.

As a teenage carnival stunt cyclist (played by Matt Long), Johnny Blaze made a deal with the devil to save his father's life. Of course, Mephistopheles being the jerk that he is, this bargain did not work out to Johnny's satisfaction. Frankly, Mephisto isn't very satisfying, either, since he's played by Easy Rider vet Peter Fonda, who never even sits on one of the film's monster motorbikes.

Anyway, years later Johnny, played by Cage, becomes the Evel Knievel of his generation, miraculously surviving the hairiest wipeouts without a scratch. He's quite a loner, and Cage plays him as a suppressed personality who's desperate to stay mellow but still does loony stuff like chug scalding coffee straight out of the pot.

When Roxanne (Eva Mendes), the childhood sweetheart he abandoned when the devilish deal went down, comes back into his life, Johnny's charm emerges in mysterious ways — like stopping traffic on the interstate to ask her to dinner.

This and much more inspires classic Cage goofiness, and those of us who appreciate his behavioral genius will enjoy it thoroughly. Others will find it understandably distracting from the matters at hand, which involve GR carrying out his first infernal assignment. That's to stop Meph's rebellious son Blackheart (Wes Bentley) from taking over the world.

For that business, Johnny morphs into a blazing, superpowered skeleton. Cage is, again, uncompromisingly into the early, agonizing stages of these transformations before the computer entirely takes over. Then it's all well-staged but semi-comprehensible bashing among the Rider, Blackheart and expendable hench demons.

The digital effects looked pretty cool and clever, but I wouldn't argue with a different sensibility that just sees them as cheapish. You're either into tattoo-quality fire and bone or you're not.

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