Ghost Rider Flames Across the Screen
Ever since I was a kid I have loved movies and television shows. I have always particularly enjoyed movies and shows involving science fiction and the paranormal. So when I recently came across the 2007 movie Ghost Rider on Hulu I just had to check it out. I hope you find this review of Ghost Rider helpful in deciding whether or not you would like to watch it.
Ghost Rider is a Marvel superhero character. The character first appeared in its human form as Johnny Blaze in a 1972 comic book. The Johnny Blaze character received its own comic book series in 1973. The series initially ran until 1983, but was subsequently reintroduced by Marvel several times and is still running today.
The original planning for a movie adaptation of Ghost Rider began in the early 1990s. Despite having a wealth of Johnny Blaze and Ghost Rider comic book material to work with Marvel was unable to develop a script that they felt would work. By 2000 Marvel entered into a partnership Crystal Sky to co-produce the Ghost Rider movie. The Marvel-Crystal Sky partnership still couldn’t develop a workable script. So two years later Marvel passed the movie project onto Columbia Pictures. Columbia also had difficulty developing a script, but finally began shooting in 2005. The final version of the film wasn’t released until 2007.
In 2001 when Crystal Sky was working the Ghost Rider project, actor Nicolas Cage became interested in playing the lead role. But he soon left the project when Crystal Sky couldn’t deliver a script. But Columbia Pictures did sign Cage for the lead role of Johnny Blaze/Ghost Rider in 2003 when director and scriptwriter Mark Steven Johnson took over the project. Columbia would go on to sign Eva Mendes as Rosanne Simpson, Sam Elliot as the Caretaker, Peter Fonda as Mephistopheles, and Wes Bentley as Blackheart to round out the main cast.
The plot of the movie does not follow the comic books in many respects. Ghost Rider the movie opens showing Johnny Blaze as a young man riding motorcycles in a carnival stunt show with his father. Young Johnny is in love with a young Roxanne Simpson. Young Johnny Blaze is played by Matt Long, and the young Roxanne Simpson is played by Raquel Alessi. Long and Alessi played their roles very well drawing viewers into the love they had for each other and their quest to stay together despite Simpson’s father’s belief that Blaze wasn’t good enough for his daughter.
The early part of Ghost Rider also focused on Johnny’s relationship with his father Barton Blaze, played by Brett Cullen. Johnny learns that his father has terminal cancer, which changes his plans to run away with Roxanne. But Johnny is offered the opportunity to have it all when Mephistopheles (the Devil) offers to cure Barton’s cancer in exchange for Johnny’s soul.
Of course, the Devil never makes a fair deal! Mephistopheles cures Johnny’s father’s cancer but then causes Barton to die in a motorcycle stunt accident, which Johnny now feels responsible for. But Mephistopheles insists that a deal is a deal, and tells Johnny that one day he will call upon him.
Johnny and Roxanne split for many years but once again see each other when Roxanne shows up to interview Johnny during one of his motorcycle stunt shows. Meanwhile, Mephistopheles sees his son the demon Blackheart who wants to retrieve the Contract of San Venganza for 1000 corrupt souls. Blackheart intends to use these 1000 evil souls to make a hell on Earth and to become its ruler. Mephistopheles calls in his debt to Johnny and offers Johnny’s freedom if he will stop Blackheart and retrieve the contract for Mephistopheles. The remainder of the movie is the battle between Johnny/Ghost Rider and Mephistopheles, and Blackheart and his demons who want to control Earth.
Cage was once quoted as saying "I think Ghost Rider is one of the most unique mythologies in the comic book universe," which is ironic because the biggest plot flaw with this movie is its lack of exploration of the mythology behind Ghost Rider and the world from which he comes. The majority of the mythological background comes from narratives by the Caretaker played by Sam Elliott. The only other explanation of the mythology behind Ghost Rider comes in a few snippets of dialogue between Johnny Blaze and the Caretaker, but it is very minimal.
The lack of mythology explanation created some major plot holes such as how did Johnny Blaze know what to do when he turned into Ghost Rider, and how did he know what weaknesses the demons he fought have. In addition, the plot lacked significantly because of not knowing much of the backstory of the conflict between Mephistopheles and Blackheart, or the history and the powers of the main demons Ghost Rider does battle with. The plot simply left too much to fill in or guess at.
Production of Ghost Rider:
Matt Steven Johnson called Ghost Rider a supernatural western. The majority of the movie was filmed in Melbourne, Australia. Melbourne was selected because it has areas that are good representations of the American high desert vistas and the seedy back alleys of a modern city. Production staff even located a real ancient cemetery in the area that served as Caretaker’s home. While the bulk of the movie was filmed in Australia some reshoots were done in Vancouver British Columbia.
The production element of the movie that ends up being the real star of the show are the visual effects. The production crew had two elements from the comics that they had to convert into 3-dimensional visual images for the movie. Given that those images were Ghost Rider and his Hellcycle, the main characters of the movie, a successful conversion from page to screen was essential for the movie to have any success at all.
The Hellcycle in the comics is a Harley Davidson Chopper that is consumed by fire. The production crew wanted to use a real motorcycle as much as possible to increase the realism of the movie. So they brought together a production team that ultimately built 7 Hellcycles, each of which was custom built to fit Cage’s body and each of which had its own purpose. Although a few Hellcycle scenes were shot with computer generated graphics of the cycle, most were live shots with one of the 7 custom designed Hellcycles.
Of course to have the choppers or Ghost Rider actually be consumed by fire would have been too dangerous, so all of the fire on the Hellcycle and coming from Ghost Rider himself were computer generated. Despite being computer generated the fire is extremely realistic. The crew studied fluid flow dynamics to develop computer generations of what appeared to be directable fire. The crew also developed flashing LED light rigs that were attached to both the headgear worn by Cage as Ghost Rider and to the Hellcycles. These LED light rigs were designed to provide a realistic view of what the reflections of the flames coming from Ghost Rider’s head and the Hellcycle would look like. The end result was very well done. In fact, as I watched Ghost Rider I found myself wondering if the flaming Ghost Rider and his flaming chain were stuntmen actually on fire, rather than computer generated fire. Particularly realistic is Ghost Riders flaming chain when he throws it out to send a demon back to Hell.
Ultimately, the visual effects of Ghost Rider were the highlight of the movie.
Matt Long as the Young Johnny Blaze:
You might recognize Matt Long from his recurring roles on such TV shows as Helix, Private Practice, and Mad Men. In Ghost Rider Long plays the young Johnny Blaze. He does a fantastic job of introducing the character and setting the backstory of how Ghost Rider is created. In particular, Long as Blaze plays off of Blaze’s father Barton (Brett Cullen) extremely well. He also does a fantastic job of setting up the love story between Johnny and Roxanne. While his stint in the movie is fairly short lived, Long is one of the better actors in the film, and creates an extremely likable Johnny Blaze.
The only mistake I think the writer/director made with Long’s portrayal of Blaze was in the scene where he makes the deal with Mephistopheles. While it appears that Blaze is going to sign the contract willingly, the actual signature seems to occur more accidentally than purposely, which I think lessens the impact of Blaze’s future attitudes.
Raquel Alessi as the Young Roxanne Simpson:
Alessi has numerous acting credits including guest appearances on such high profile TV series as Entourage, Castle, How I Met Your Mother, and CSI NY. Alessi’s is also known for her role as FBI intelligence officer Lia Mathers in the TV crime drama Standoff (2006-2007).
As the younger version of Roxanne Simpson in Ghost Rider, Alessi gave a very solid performance. She did a fantastic job of setting up the star-crossed love relationship with Blaze. But most importantly she portrayed the character of Roxanne Simpson in a way that makes the movie viewer care about what happens to her.
While Long and Alessi certainly would not have had the star power of Cage and Mendes, it would have been interesting to see if Ghost Rider would have been a stronger movie if they had played Blaze and Simpson all the way through.
Nicolas Cage as Johnny Blaze and Ghost Rider:
Nicolas Cage is a well-established Hollywood actor with over 85 film credits on his resume. He’s known for being a bit quirky, and willing to test the boundaries of his acting abilities to put a unique spin on the characters he plays.
According to Mark Steven Johnson Cage was the only actor they wanted for the role of Johnny Blaze/Ghost Rider. Johnson considers Cage perfect for the role. Cage certainly has the dramatic range to successfully play Blaze and his superhero alter ego Ghost Rider. Cage also had the interest in the role to be successful. Not only had he been seeking a comic book superhero role, but he was particularly interested in the Ghost Rider role because of the character’s unique looks and because he found the comic books complicated, scary, and exciting. But the result of casting Cage didn’t live up to the expectations set by his talent, interest in the role, or Johnson’s confidence.
You might expect a character running from a deal with the Devil to migrate towards hard booze and heavy metal rock, or some sort of other hard-partying ways. But Cage tried to bring his own unique spin on Johnny Blaze by making him a jelly bean enthusiast, and a Karen Carpenter music fan. Cage once describe his additions to the Blaze character as “an amusing way to keep dark spirits at bay”. Cage also said that the obvious comparison of his Blaze interpretation to the noted motorcycle stuntman Evel Knievel was an intentional interpretation of the character.
Unfortunately, Cage’s portrayal of Blaze may well be one of his worst acting performances ever. While towards the end of the movie, Cage had flashes of his talent and of the potential he brought to the role, the vast majority of his time as Blaze was flat and quite uninspiring. Particularly painful to watch was Cage’s portrayal of Blaze during the reunion of Blaze with Simpson when she interviewed him for her TV news broadcast. In fact, this scene was so poorly done that I almost turned the movie off at this point, but I am glad I didn’t because there were some worthwhile moments to come.
Where Cage did shine in this movie was when he changed from Blaze to Ghost Rider. Cage played the Ghost Rider superhero character with a dramatic flare that was worthy of watching. While the writing of the screenplay left many plot holes in the storyline, particularly how Blaze as Ghost Rider knew how to use his powers, Cage’s portrayal of Ghost Rider was top notch given what he had to work with.
In my experience, it is quite unusual for a single actor to have both a top notch and absolutely atrocious performance in the same movie, but that is exactly what Cage brought to Ghost Rider. Ghost Rider might have actually gained some critical success had Cage’s performance been more even keel, particularly if his portrayal of Blaze had been closer to the quality of his portrayal of Ghost Rider.
Eva Mendes as Roxanne Simpson:
Mendes has numerous movie credits to her name, including Hitch and the Fast and Furious franchise. But you may remember Mendes best for her role as a spokeswoman for Revlon Cosmetics.
In talking about being cast for the role of Roxanne Simpson, Mendes said that looking at the comic book character it was quite obvious that she is very different being of Cuban descent whereas the comic book Simpson was white and blond. But Mendes tried to develop a common reference point for moviegoers who read the comics by becoming more voluptuous for the role.
Despite being gorgeous and cast in the role of the damsel in distress, Mendes brought a quiet strength to the role of Roxanne Simpson. She played the role not as a victim, but as a strong force to be reckoned with on her own. Unfortunately, the storyline didn’t give Mendes the latitude to fully explore the strength that she brought to Simpson. I felt that there was a lot more that Mendes as Simpson could have brought to the storyline.
Peter Fonda as Mephistopheles (The Devil):
Peter Fonda is probably best known for his role in the movie Easy Rider, and as the son of Henry Fonda and as the brother of Actress Jane Fonda. But with over 100 acting credits to his name, he has developed quite a diverse career and a reputation as a superb actor.
Fonda was a fantastic casting choice to play Mephistopheles. He brought an understated dignity to the role and was very believable as The Devil. Unfortunately, Fonda wasn’t onscreen near enough. The mythology behind his character’s creation and use of Ghost Rider, and his conflict with Blackheart wasn’t explored near enough. Consequently, Fonda’s role ended up being not much more than a footnote to the movie when it could have been a major contributing factor to a much more successful film.
Wes Bentley as the Demon Blackheart:
Wes Bentley is probably best known for his roles in TV’s American Horror Story (2014-2016), and as Seneca Crane in The Hunger Games. In Ghost Rider, Bentley plays the important role of Blackheart, the main villain. Bentley does an excellent job of bringing the evil of the Demon Blackheart to life. But much like the character Mephistopheles, the movie simply doesn’t explore the mythology behind the character, nor his relationship with Mephistopheles near enough. This didn’t give Bentley near enough material to work with and as a result his talents were vastly underused. His best scenes are in the climatic moments of the movie.
Sam Elliott as Caretaker:
Sam Elliott is the classic cowboy, which makes him the absolutely perfect actor to play the role of Caretaker in Ghost Rider. Elliott played this role superbly in true cowboy form, and his voice was ideal for the narrative information he gave in the film.
Caretaker is an extremely important role in Ghost Rider because he is the viewer’s main source of information on the limited mythological information provided. Caretaker is also extremely important because he is also Johnny Blaze’s sole resource about what has befallen him in becoming Ghost Rider.
But Elliott is also the poster child for how this movie could have been so much more than what it was because Elliott’s talents were not tapped into and because his character wasn’t used anywhere near its full potential. Although viewers are teased at a couple of different times in the movie that Elliott and Caretaker will play a key pivotal role in the story, ultimately Caretaker becomes nothing more than a minor character that is used to provide limited but vital information on the story’s background. In some ways, the underuse of Elliott as Caretaker is the movie’s greatest flaw.
Reception by Critics and Fans:
Ghost Rider opened in the United States February 16, 2007, and played on approximately 3,619 screens. The film was hit hard by critics who didn’t like much about the movie including Cage’s portrayal of Johnny Blaze and Ghost Rider. The reviews from moviegoers were mixed at best. At the time of writing this article, the film had a 5.2 out of 10 rating at IMDB.com, 3.8 out of 5 stars at Amazon.com, and a 48% audience liked it score on Rottentomatoes.com. But Ghost Rider proved to be a decent commercial success. The movie reportedly cost approximately $110,000,000 to make. U.S. box office revenue came in at only $115,802,596. But Ghost Rider made another $113,742,993 internationally, for a total of $229,545,589 in box office revenue. Consequently, the movie profited roughly $115,000,000 from its theatrical run alone.
In addition to box office receipts, Ghost Rider DVD sales have totaled at least $103,882,484 in the U.S. In addition, although total revenue figures could not be located, the movie reportedly did well as a rental, and is now earning money via digital rental and sales on such sites as Amazon and Vudu. Finally, the movie also spurred an entire line of licensed merchandise including video games and clothing. So ultimately, while the U.S. Box office receipts were a little underwhelming, Ghost Rider was most definitely a financial success in the long term.
The Future of the Ghost Rider Movie Franchise:
Ghost Rider Spirit 2 of Vengeance was released in 2012. Also widely panned by critics, and not a huge success at the box office, the movie would be the last in the franchise to date. There were preliminary plans for a Ghost Rider 3, but the studio failed to make the movie in a timely manner and the rights to Ghost Rider reverted back to Marvel. At present, despite some desire by fans to have the franchise rebooted, Marvel Studios doesn’t have any plans for a new Ghost Rider film. But in September 2016 a Ghost Rider Spirit of Vengeance character played by Gabriel Luna joined season 4 of ABC Television’s Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D show. While the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D Ghost Rider is the Robbie Reyes version, not Johnny Blaze, this is the closest Ghost Rider fans are likely to get to a cinematic treatment of the beloved comic book character for now.
On a 5 star rating scale, I would give 2007’s Ghost Rider a 3 star rating. The movie has many flaws, particularly its lack of explanation of the Ghost Rider mythology and lack villain character depth, but the action scenes, visual effects, and Nicolas Cage as Ghost Ride,( not as Johnny Blaze) make it worth watching on a cold rainy or winter night if you enjoy science fiction and/or paranormal movies.