“If someone makes a mistake — a big mistake — do you think they should have to pay for it every day for the rest of their life?” ponders Johnny Blaze (Nicolas Cage). Or does everyone deserve “a second chance”?
Carter Slade (Sam Elliott) is sure Blaze deserves a second chance — even if his “mistake” was selling his soul to a devil named Mephistopheles (Peter Fonda) in order to save a loved one dying from cancer. “You did it for the right reason,” Slade assures Blaze, “and that means you’ve got God on your side.”
Well, that’s a nice thought. In supernatural comic-book movies, though, “God’s side” can be a pretty abstract concept, especially compared to, well, the other side. Religious references and iconography are allowed, yet as the powers of hell run amok on the earth, the powers of heaven seem distant and uninvolved.
In Hellboy, the villain goes so far as to taunt one of the heroes about how “your God remains silent” while the villain’s “god” is active in the world. Constantine at least has angels around, although they seem impotent and passive compared to the demons. (In one scene demons kill a priest right in front of an angel, who can only comfort him as he dies, and another major angelic figure turns out to be a dangerous wacko.) Then there’s Spawn, in which a damned soul subverts hell’s plans to attack heaven, without much evident support from heaven itself.
An early Ghost Rider storyline in the comic books featured a startling contrast to this general principle: In Ghost Rider #9, Johnny Blaze is granted his “second chance” by no less than Jesus Christ himself, who stands between Blaze and the Devil, saying, “Johnny Blaze’s soul is beyond you, Satan. He has earned his second chance.”
Writer Tony Isabella, who developed the story in that 1973 issue, has observed that there were “plenty of Satan avatars active in the Marvel Universe, but precious little evidence of the loyal opposition.” (Isabella planned to have Blaze become a Christian and be delivered from the Devil’s power, but this was squelched, and even Jesus’ appearance later reinterpreted, apparently at the insistence of controversial editor-in-chief Jim Shooter.)
Filmmaker Mark Steven Johnson knows the Ghost Rider mythos backward and forward, and has synthesized elements from four decades of different comic-book series about characters called Ghost Rider, not all of which were originally connected, into a single story.
Yet in a story that finds room for (I think) six to eight different demonic figures (depending whether you count the two Ghost Riders), once again the powers of heaven are present in name and image only. God may be on Johnny Blaze’s side, but he doesn’t seem to be doing blazes to help him against the forces of darkness arrayed against him. Once they’ve been cast out of heaven, it seems the only thing fallen angels have to fear on the face of the earth is someone badder than they are.
Depictions of St. Michael casting down Satan are seen more than once, and we’re told that four of the demonic characters were cast out of heaven by Michael himself. There’s also a Spanish priest who defensively raises the crucifix of his rosary against a demon named Blackheart (Wes Bentley), apparently to no effect. (We never learn happens to the priest, but Blackheart, who has just finished lighting a rack of candles in a church, doesn’t seem intimidated by sacred things. Perplexingly, the movie elsewhere assures us that the demons “can’t go on sacred ground.” This is typical of the movie’s failure to establish its rules.)
As he did in Daredevil, Johnson distills elements from multiple versions of his source material into an eclectic story peppered with homages and asides that diehard fans may appreciate. Johnson’s interest in his subject is palpable, and it’s not hard to believe that Nicolas Cage, a lifelong comic book fan and motorcycle enthusiast, relished the role of Johnny Blaze, and lobbied hard for the part. This isn’t Fantastic Four, a film so woefully adrift from its origins that it seems to have been made by people who never actually read a comic book.
Yet for all their evident interest and affinity for the material, the filmmakers haven’t made a very good movie. They’ve figured out how to get Blaze (Cage), the motorcycle-riding hellion who makes a deal with the devil, into the same picture as Carter Slade (Sam Elliott), the originally unconnected (and not even supernatural) Ghost Rider of the Old West. But they haven’t figured out either who Johnny Blaze is as a character, or what the Ghost Rider is all about.
On the Johnny Blaze side, the comic-book character has long been seen as a tortured soul living in the shadow of a Jekyll-and-Hyde curse in which he must share his life with an uncontrollable figure of evil. The movie, though, defers the Ghost Rider’s first appearance for decades after Blaze’s initial deal with the devil.
This leaves Blaze, an Evel Knievel–type motorcycle stunt rider, spending his life pursuing ever more suicidal stunts in an effort to prove to himself that his life is still his own. Ever fearful of the fate that hangs over his head, he flees from his lifelong love, Roxanne Simpson (Eva Mendes, displaying more cleavage per minute of screentime than any two actresses in recent memory). Yet it seems that Blaze can’t die, for Mephisto wants him alive. “You got something more than luck,” says a crew member, shaking his head. “You got an angel looking out for you.”
“Maybe it’s something else,” Blaze mutters to himself. A wittier movie might have remembered that demons are fallen angels, and so Blaze does have an angel looking out him, after a fashion. (The film misses the same opportunity later when Blackheart shows up at a biker bar, for no apparent reason, and is told that admission is “Angels only.” “You got a problem with that?” the biker asks menacingly. “Actually, I do,” Blackheart answers, passing on the chance to say, “Actually, I am an angel.”)
In the comic books, the Ghost Rider has long been understood as a figure of vengeance, a hellion whose wrath is directed at punishing the guilty. The classic incarnation had a mystic “hellfire” power that could scald the soul without harming the flesh, while a later version added a “penance stare” power that works like the contraposto perditions of Dante’s Inferno, inflicting back on the wicked the weight and suffering of their own sins.
The movie includes this, but essentially as a sidebar. Ghost Rider gives hell to a random street thug, and later to a jail cell full of brutal prisoners (though he spares one terrified prisoner, declaring him innocent). Later, the Ghost Rider finds a way to use his power against his archenemy Blackheart, even though the latter is a demon and has no soul to burn.
But the idea of punishing the guilty just doesn’t figure much into a story that doesn’t have any human villains for the Ghost Rider to punish. Instead, the plot is driven by a war in hell between Mephistopheles and his brat kid Blackheart, who are battling over a supernatural MacGuffin, a contract for the souls of an entire town of damned souls.
It seems this contract was snatched out of Mephistopheles’ hand 150 years ago by the Carter Slade Ghost Rider, and now Blackheart is after it. For reasons that seem murky at best, this contract, and the damned souls it commands, may give Blackheart the power to claim the entire earth as his own. Go figure.
In this war of powers and principalities, the Ghost Rider’s role as a punisher of human wickedness is subordinated to a new job description invented for the film: the devil’s “bounty hunter,” or rather goon squad. Mephistopheles sends the Ghost Rider after Blackheart and his squad of fallen angels, and the film becomes a series of devil-on-devil smackdowns, which are occasionally visually interesting but never clever or even particularly coherent.
There are also a series of vehicular chases in which the police chase Ghost Rider by car, helicopter and so forth. This is the best Johnson could do with a fiery, chopper-riding skeleton that punishes the wicked — put him in chase scenes and have him duke it out with other supernatural beings? What a waste.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.