Tuesday, February 27, 2007

"Ghost Rider" Ignites The Popcorn Movie Season

Do you hear that revving, low and loud enough to shake your bones out of your skin? Is it the sound of the hell cycle lashing the pavement in the distance, or the start of the big budget, big action, popcorn movie season?
My wife and I took my parents’ teenaged godchildren to see “Ghost Rider” on Friday, and while it flickered for the first 30-45 minutes, once it caught, it was smokin’.
Admittedly, I’ve got a bit of a bias. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, back when I was collecting comics in the late 80’s and early 90’s, the revamped “Ghost Rider” was my favourite in the superhero genre. It even led me to a grudging appreciation of the original 70’s series. To be sure, the original was pretty cheesy at times, what with the bone-headed biker demon slugging it out with evil clowns and other third-rate bad guys, but it had its moments. But the second series had a tougher look and an edgier plot that left the original eating its dust.
So it was with cautious optimism that I went to the screening last week.
The story combines elements of both series, with the look of the 90’s version – definitely a good call. I did think the hell cycle, with its skeletal face on the front end, looked a little more like its interstellar incarnation presented in the “Guardians of the Galaxy” issue where the Ghost Rider of the future makes a guest appearance (ah, there’s nothing like a crossover with a hot title to try to boost the sales of an obscure ‘book!).
To some extent, my caution was justified. The movie suffers from backstory tedium right off the top, liberally spiced with corny “young lovers” dialogue and shots. Scenes like the heart-broken, rain-soaked girl staring wistfully at her troubled lover fleeing into the distance leave you wondering whether you should wince in disgust or laugh. Then there’s the gaggle of demons, who we’re told can’t tread on hallowed ground, but who don’t seem to have a problem waltzing into a church to light a votive candle or two and push a priest around (unless, of course, this is a deliberate potshot at the Vatican from the writer/director and producers). Then there’s Eva Mendes, who does an admirable job of showing her… journalistic integrity? No. Depth of emotion and intellectual turmoil as she struggles to make sense of a suddenly re-appeared love interest and the supernatural terror that follows? Nope. How about her ability to adapt to unprecedented demands on her courage? Still cold. What about showing off her… attributes? Yep. That’s it. There’s no relationship angst or physical danger that can’t be dealt with by pushing her breasts as close to the camera as possible (although I’m not sure if that was her decision or writer/director Mark Steven Johnson’s call). Not that I’m complaining or anything… I just wanted to see a little more. Of the acting, people! Sheesh! And naming the devil’s son “Blackheart” was pretty unoriginal. Then there’s the ongoing debate about Nick Cage’s hairpiece.
But none of this is out of line. It’s all perfectly reasonable for a comic book movie because it’s standard comic book fare (except for the hairpiece). Sure, the film could’ve been great instead of merely good if they would have corrected these and other problems with better writing, editing and acting/directing, but keeping these little flaws keeps the movie true to the original source.
And there’s lots that make the story a real blast. Great special effects for starters. The Ghost Rider looked amazing (in transformation, as well as final presentation), as did the hell cycle. Okay, the quick demon-face shots on Mephistopheles and Blackheart looked like they could have been cut-and-pasted from the Dracula face shots in “Van Helsing”, but at least they were CG’d well. I was quite impressed with the way in which the infamous penance stare was presented; that was about the best way to illustrate a criminal’s mind being crushed by the pain he’d inflicted on others without the filmmakers losing their PG-13 rating or swinging too far the other way and making it dumb.
Sam Elliot was perfect as “the caretaker”. You just can’t find another actor with that voice, look, and all-around aura of tough old cowpoke.
The fight sequences were great eye candy. And, like any popcorn blockbuster, there were a lot of laughs amid the action. Despite being an integral part of the film’s trailer, the line with the goth girl mumbling about how her flame-headed benefactor managed to pull off his “real edge look” is still a hoot. Much like Bill Murray’s famous “he slimed me” line from “Ghostbusters”, if a joke can still be funny after the audience has seen it a million times in commercials ahead of time, you know the writers are on the ball.
Let’s not forget Nick Cage’s tribute to Johnny Blaze and pretty much every lone-wolf-style superhero. Cage plays the trope with respect, but never takes himself too seriously, mugging for the camera in all the right places. And how could you not love the decision to make Blaze a militant fan of “The Carpenters”? Not only is it a perfect counterpoint to the fearless stuntman/bountyhunter-of-hell image, but it shows a real courage in the character to openly insist on being allowed to listen to the 70’s crooners, where pretty much anyone else would quietly regulate this fetish to their secret guilty pleasures files (I still remember times during my early childhood in the 70’s when “The Carpenters” were played around the house, and I have to admit, while I’m not a fan, Karen did have quite a beautiful voice).
Last but not least: a soundtrack capped-off by a rip-roarin’ version of “Riders in the Sky”. A very worthy rendition of the old Stan Jones tune indeed - second, of course, to the masterful performance of the late Johnny Cash (and maybe that nice tribute done a few years ago by The Blues Brothers in “Blues Brothers 2000”).
Ultimately, the sign that “Ghost Rider” is entertaining is that it passed muster with the uninitiated. My wife and the 14-year-old boy (who admitted with a little embarrassment that he’d never heard of Ghost Rider until the trailers hit the airwaves) and 12-year-old girl (who knows even less about comics) all said they’d had a lot of fun.
“Ghost Rider” is certainly worth seeing on the big screen, but I’d suggest going to a matinee or a cheap night.
Is “Ghost Rider” an intelligent and deeply moving film that will resonate through the ages? No. But as a solid comic book movie, it’s done a worthy job of starting us down the road of big SFX popcorn flicks through the spring and summer. Pass the butter, would ya?

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