10/21/09

RP018 Ghost Rider

(2007, Action/Superhero/Horror, color)

Riffers:

Matt Sloan, Aaron Yonda and Jason Stephens as “Nicholas Kage”

His Oscar is currently trying to escape.

Rating: ****

In a Nutshell:


Nicholas Cage turns into a heavy metal album cover.

Summary:

Depicting a scene that never happens in the film.“There is a legend,” Sam Elliott growls—a line he will rumble and re-rumble many, many times in the 114 minutes to come. Said legend involves a flaming skeleton cowboy who stole a contract from the devil worth a thousand evil souls.

Jump ahead to the seventies, when a young Johnny Blaze and his father perform a motorcycle act in a traveling carnival. Johnny nearly wrecks his bike showing off for his girlfriend Roxanne. Daddy Blaze chews his son out for recklessness. Later, on a sundrenched hill beneath a spreading oak (yes, it’s a subtle film) Johnny asks Roxanne to run away with him to escape her oppressive father. She agrees.

Johnny goes home, where a paper recovered from a trash can reveals his father’s terminal cancer. A mysterious stranger (Peter Fonda) visits him while he works on his bike in the carnival’s garage tent. The stranger offers to cure Daddy Blaze in exchange for Johnny’s soul. Johnny agrees. Daddy Blaze wakes up feeling great. His doctors examine him and give him a clean bill of health. That afternoon, he crashes into a flaming hoop and dies.

Johnny drives out to a crossroads. (The crossroads, perhaps? Is the devil at a particular crossroads, or is he at all of them?) He tries to fight the devil, but Old Scratch declares that he upheld his side of the bargain by curing the cancer; death by other causes wasn’t covered. Johnny must now bide his time until the devil has work for him. The sky clouds over and rain begins to fall as Johnny strands his girlfriend under the spreading oak to wait for his infernal assignment. Subtlety, thy name is Ghost Rider.

Johnny grows up into a Karen-Carpenter-loving, monkey-show-watching, jelly-bean-drinking, neuroses-accumulating, super-extra-crispy-double-dog-world-famous stunt rider. Imagine an unholy amalgamation of Evel Knievel, Elvis Presley and Woody Allen portrayed by Nicholas Cage. (Come to think of it, Mr. Cage’s name alone implies all the qualities I meant to convey. I probably could have mentioned him first and left the others off.) Johnny’s made his fortune performing stunts of lunatic daring, secure in the knowledge that the devil hasn’t called for him yet, and thus won’t let him die.

At the scene of his latest stunt (leaping his bike over six low-flying helicopters) he’s interviewed by an older, more voluptuous version of his former flame Roxanne, now played by Eva Mendes. He tries to get her to stay for the show, but she refuses. He does the leap in a hurry and speeds his stunt bike out the stadium door to chase down her news van. After he nearly kills himself to pull her over, she agrees to a date.

While he’s getting ready, the devil comes calling. You see, the devil’s emo goth son Blackheart and his emo goth demon friends have escaped hell. Even now they wander the world sucking the life out of innocent bikers in search of the thousand-soul contract his father lost, lo, these many years ago. (So they can rule the world, naturally.) Johnny’s assignment is to become the Ghost Rider, a flaming motorcycle skeleton man tasked with tracking down the escaped souls of hell. Johnny screams and cackles as his flesh burns off. He rides to a nearby warehouse to turn an emo demon to dust.

Our temporarily fleshy hero.Johnny turns back into a human at sunrise in an unfamiliar graveyard. The caretaker (Sam Elliott again) stitches up Johnny’s wounds and—wait a minute. Am I crazy, or did Johnny not have flesh to wound during the warehouse fight? Sigh.

Where was I? Oh, right. The caretaker rumbles, “The story goes...” and launches into his legend spiel again. Now filled in on the backstory, Johnny returns to his apartment. Roxanne meets him there, upset that he stood her up the night before. He hems and haws a bit before finally filling her in on the whole “contract with the devil” and “flaming skeleton transformation” deal. She doesn’t believe him and leaves.

Meanwhile, the cops have discovered the license plate from Johnny’s bike at the destroyed warehouse. Somehow they leap to the conclusion that he’s responsible for all of Blackheart’s murders. Johnny maintains his innocence under questioning, but they lock him in a holding cell with a lot of murderous psychos anyway. This activates his burning skeleton-ness; he transforms and slaughters the cell’s other inhabitants before breaking out to hunt down another one of Blackheart’s cronies. Since the “flaming motorcycle of death” thing isn’t very low-key (and neither was the jail cell massacre) every cop and news van in the city follows him around during the battle. Johnny turns another demon into dust while Roxanne watches. She realizes Johnny was telling the truth after all and tries to go to him, but the police open fire. Bullets don’t work on skeletons, so Johnny rides off into the night.

Blackheart has been watching the battle and observing Roxanne’s behavior. He realizes that she’s Ghost Rider’s girlfriend, and sets a trap for her. Johnny tries to save her, but his “guilt stare” (the power to make you remember every bad thing you’ve done, which turns your eyeballs into charcoal briquettes) doesn’t work on someone without a soul. Blackheart takes Roxanne away, telling Johnny that he’d better find the contract if he wants to see her again.

Johnny runs back to the caretaker, who intones “There is a legend” a couple more times before turning into a flaming skeleton cowboy. He hands over the contract, and they ride together to the old ghost town where Blackheart waits. At this point the caretaker turns human again and leaves because he only had one more transformation left in him, grumble grumble, something something, mushroom pancakes. I could not have made that up if I tried.

Johnny goes from the desert to a swamp (where he defeats the last emo goth demon) and back into the desert where he exchanges the contract for Roxanne. Blackheart and Johnny fight until the sun comes up, which turns Johnny human. Blackheart uses the contract and devours a thousand damned souls at once. Johnny lures him into the shade, where he turns back into Ghost Rider and uses his “guilt stare” to make Blackheart feel the pain of all the souls inside him. Blackheart melts back to hell. The devil shows up to take back the Ghost Rider power in exchange for the return of Johnny’s soul. Johnny refuses, vowing to use his flaming skeleton-ish-ness to fight the devil wherever he can. The devil throws a fit and leaves. Johnny and Roxanne say a tender goodbye in a sundrenched field under a spreading oak.

Thoughts:

Our hero, de-fleshed.Johnny Blaze: a name only a comic book character’s mother could love. In non-Cage hands he’d be just another Man Behind The Mask, a pathetic milquetoast cut from the same cloth as the reliably uninteresting Bruce Wayne or Clark Kent. Nicholas Cage will not allow this. He piles on quirk after brooding, intense quirk until the boring Johnny Blaze twists and warps into a fascinating character. A ludicrous and unbelievable fascinating character, true, but that’s still more than this insulting, illogical little movie deserves. You got to hand it to him; even when he’s terrible, Nicholas Cage keeps things interesting.

This goes for the Ghost Rider movie as a whole. Its problems are many and varied, to be sure. The dialog is some of the most ham-fisted trash I’ve ever heard, redeemed only by the fact that I can’t understand half of it. (I’ve never had trouble understanding Nicholas Cage and Sam Elliott before, so I’m assuming this is a technical problem). Also, if this movie had a middle name, we’d have to call it Ghost “Inconsistency” Rider. Many of the illogical gems have been noted in the summary above, but here’s another worthy of note: When Johnny first meets the caretaker, the latter grumbles that he’s safe in the graveyard because the demons can’t enter hallowed ground. And yet Blackheart enters a cathedral to slaughter a priest with impunity not fifteen minutes later. The latter half of the final confrontation takes place in a frontier church. No explanation is ever offered. It’s a very special sort of movie that violates its own rules so often and so flagrantly.

Despite these shortcomings it stays interesting, marching ever forward under the power of Cage’s self-conscious quirks and a plot that doesn’t stop for breathers. I say more power to it. If you’re gonna be this bad, you might as well be bad in a fun-to-watch way.

Much of the credit for the movie’s entertainment value has to be given to Aaron Yonda and Matt Sloan, who have now cemented their position as my favorite non-MST3K Rifftrax contributors. The writing is sharp and the timing impeccable. Instead of their creation Chad Vader, they’ve included the occasional quip from impressionist Jason Stephens. His imitation of Nicholas Cage commenting on his own film will never be mistaken for the real Mr. Cage (at times it could double as a mood-swinging Jimmy Stewart) but it’s recognizable and often drop dead funny. A few of my favorite comments (again, not able to attribute them to specific commenters): When Sam Elliott recounts being sent to “fetch a thousand evil souls”, a commenter remembers “I once sent my dog to fetch a thousand evil tennis balls”. Upon glimpsing the title, someone says, “I imagine that riding a ghost is kind of like riding a dolphin. Kind of slippery and gooey.” After a particularly awful and fascinating scene of Quirky Nick, fake Nicholas Kage says, “I’m like a vacuum cleaner. I suck, but everyone needs me.” The commentary is quotable enough to fill several more pages, but I should probably stop there. Finding the correct cut of this movie can be tricky—you need the hard-to-find 114 minute theatrical version, not the ubiquitous 127 minute extended edition—but the end result is well worth the trouble.