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March 7, 2007

Movie Review – Ghost Rider (2007)


The importance of tone in a movie is under appreciated. Striking the right tone is particularly important in comedies and superhero comic book adaptations. The right tone and you have a lively and satisfying movie. The wrong tone and you feel like asking for your money back at the end.

Ghost Rider finds exactly the right note pitched between serious and silly. The titular hero is a motorcycle stunt racer who makes a Faustian pact in his youth. Some years later he finds he has the ability to transform into an animated skeleton enveloped in demonic flames. Since he’s a thoroughly good guy he rejects the devil’s calling and uses his powers for good.

This is all completely absurd, of course. Everyone (filmmakers, audience) knows it’s absurd but pretends it’s not for the duration of the running time, and that’s why it works. The filmmakers and the audience have their own compact: The filmmakers present a movie that looks great, moves briskly, embraces its comic book origin and doesn’t take itself seriously. The audience accepts it in the intended spirit. Enter into that compact and this movie is great fun.

The filmmakers behind Ghost Rider started with the considerable advantage of adapting a non-iconic superhero’s story. There are not many people (myself included) who care or even know if the adaptation is faithful to the source material, if Cage looks the part, if his motorcycle is the right make and model, etc. Ghost Rider doesn’t have the baggage of Superman or Spider-Man or even the X-Men.

Nicolas Cage is perfectly cast as GR. This is essentially a comic character and Cage’s comic timing is excellent, but he also has the necessary gravity to carry off the soul redemption speeches. Sam Elliott is an inspired choice to play the hero’s grizzled mentor and Peter Fonda and Wes Bentley are also fine as Mephistopheles Sr. and Jr. The weak link in the cast is Eva Mendes. She does well with the comedy, but is painfully bad in her dramatic speeches. Faux seriousness is not as easy as Cage makes it look.

The movie is full of delightful bits of business, often allied with excellent CGI. The Ghost Rider’s motorcycle, naturally also flame-enveloped, comes when he whistles. The melody line of the pulsing soundtrack accompaniment to the penultimate thundering ride to the rescue across the desert is “Ghost Riders In the Sky.” Mephistopheles, Jr.’s henchmen have assumed the forms of “elementals” for, respectively, dusty, amorphous and waterlogged bodies. A grateful woman rescued by GR delivers the ultimate commendation: a flaming skull is a tough look, but on him it looked good.

3 stars