This review was written for the theatrical release of "Ghost Rider."
NEW YORK -- A comic book franchise is not born with this stillborn debut of Marvel's "Ghost Rider," starring Nicolas Cage as the fiery, motorcycle-riding skeleton who goes after bad guys. Despite the presence of the affable actor, who brings a clear love of the character and his trademark off-kilter brand of deadpan humor to the role, this effort is unlikely to reach the boxoffice heights of such stable mates as Spider-Man and the X-Men, settling instead for the level of director Mark Steven Johnson's other Marvel adaptation, "Daredevil."
After a brief prologue set in the Old West that reflects the first incarnation of the comic book, the film introduces us to the younger version of the lead character, Johnny Blaze. The young man's stunt cycle performer father is mortally ill from cancer, so when Mephistopheles (Peter Fonda) shows up to suggest one of his deals, Johnny eagerly barters his soul in exchange for his father's return to health.
Unfortunately, he hadn't counted on the devil's duplicitous ways, and it isn't long before, like seemingly every other comic book hero, he's lost his dad, in this case to a fiery motorcycle accident. He soon sets off on his own, abandoning his beautiful girlfriend Roxanne in the process.
Years later, he's become an Evel Knievel-style celebrity, jumping over half a dozen hovering helicopters over the length of a football field. When Roxanne (Eva Mendes, dressed in form-fitting dresses and showing a lot of cleavage), now a television interviewer, reappears in his life, he thinks everything is great. That is, until Mephistopheles shows up to exact his price.
Thus, Johnny, transformed into the Ghost Rider, is forced to become a sort of bounty hunter for his satanic keeper, using his new power to battle evildoers. These include Mephistopheles' wayward son Blackheart (Wes Bentley) and his gang, who are apparently competing for wayward souls. Whenever he gets close enough, Ghost Rider employs his Stare of Penance, which apparently makes the bad guys feel really, really guilty.
At this point the story line becomes replaced by a numbing series of actions sequences in which the Ghost Rider performs his fiery gravity-defying stunts while trying to avoid the clutches of law enforcement. Every once in a while, he stops by an old cemetery, where the grizzled Caretaker (Sam Elliott) brings him to speed on various plot points.
Johnson and his special effects team do their best to provide the sort of cool visuals that will attract comic book and heavy metal fans, but the CGI flames never really impress, and the end results have the inevitable feel of a video game rather than the big screen.
Cage attempts to provide some originality to his characterization via such touches as Johnny's habit of swilling jelly beans from a martini glass, obsessive listening to the music of the Carpenters and fondness for watching monkey karate videos. But all of the actor's natural charisma is unable to compensate for the plodding narrative and thin characterizations.
Fonda, whose presence brings to mind such obvious references as "Easy Rider," effectively underplays as the Devil, and Donal Logue has some fun moments as Johnny's beleaguered employee.
A Columbia Pictures release in association with Crystal Sky Pictures and Relativity Media
A Marvel Studios/Michael De Luca production
Director-screenwriter: Mark Steven Johnson
Producers: Avi Arad, Steven Paul, Michael De Luca, Gary Foster
Executive producers: E. Bennett Walsh, Ari Arad, Stan Lee, Norm Golightly, David S. Goyer, Lynwood Spinks
Director of photography: Russell Boyd
Production designer: Kirk M. Petruccelli
Film editor: Richard Francis-Bruce
Costume designer: Lizzy Gardiner
Special visual effects and animation: Sony Pictures Imageworks Inc.
Music: Christopher Young
Cast: Johnny Blaze: Nicolas Cage
Roxanne: Eva Mendes
Blackheart: Wes Bentley
Caretaker: Sam Elliott
Mack: Donal Logue
Mephistopheles: Peter Fonda
Running time -- 110 minutes
MPAA rating PG-13