'Ghost Rider': Hells, um, Devils

Fooom! Nicolas Cage can't shoot his way out of this biker-gunslinger flick.
Fooom! Nicolas Cage can't shoot his way out of this biker-gunslinger flick. (By Jasin Boland -- Columbia Pictures)
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 17, 2007

"Ghost Rider" is a compelling image in search of a movie.

The image is, I suppose, every bad-boy biker's idealized vision of himself: a slinky, hellish black-leathered and jeaned knight on a gleamy chopper with angel-wing bars and a teardrop fuel tank. He looks like a chromed angel of death or a cowboy gunslinger in the key of motorcycle as he churns across plain and through city, leaving a ribbon of flame in his tracks.

And -- here's the best part -- his head is on fire.

I haven't seen a good "his head is on fire" movie in a long time, maybe never, but now I'm aching to see some more. Anybody got any suggestions? Do I have to wait for the sequel, "His Head Is on Fire 2," before I get my wish? Darn, I hate it when that happens.

Anyhow, "Ghost Rider" is on somewhat shakier ground as a narrative. Nicolas Cage, who should know better, plays Johnny Blaze, an Evelish Knievelish stunt jock who makes a nice living punching his bike so hard off a ramp it leaps not tall buildings but rows and rows of trucks and even helicopters, with swerving rotors ready to grind him to cornflakes, at a single bound. He's a second generationer in this line of work, having learned the flying trade from his dad who one day tried to fly too far and was brought low for it.

But that was after Johnny inked a contract with Old Scratch, in order to save his dad from the cancer that was eating his lungs. It was the Devil's trick to get Johnny to sign, then take the old man via different means! And this was a devil you thought you could trust, too. He looks just like Young Mr. Lincoln. (How many of you kids get the joke? Don't raise your hands at once.)

In any event, many years later, with Johnny grown up, the Devil (Peter Fonda, get it?) wants the due Johnny cheated him out of in the first place; though a fraud, the contract is still binding. It seems that there's trouble in Hell. The Devil's evil son Blackheart (Wes Bentley) and three pals (angels of air, water and I couldn't figure out the last guy, maybe just ugliness) want to take over the ranch. Politics, politics, everything's politics! Thus the Devil commissions Johnny as a "Ghost Rider," which means his job is to take down the bad boys; if he does that, he gets his soul back; if not, he goes on the rotisserie until the sun turns into a popsicle.

Hmm, what follows are a lot of loud, chaotic action sequences for an audience acculturated more to NASCAR, tractor pulls, demo derbies and that show on Discovery in which the father curses his adult sons while they build custom choppers. Over and over, director Mark Steven Johnson returns to the image of the ghost rider, head blazing, roaring hellishly through the darkness, trailing gossamers of oxidation. Johnny has to fight each of the bad guys in various heavy-metal ways -- chains seem to be the weapon of choice -- and the effects, though hardly believable, are quite energetic.

I suppose there's some resemblance to a plot, even if I could never quite figure out where Sam Elliott fit in. He seemed to be a graveyard attendant and religious eschatology adviser, an odd confluence of occupations, even by Hollywood standards. Also along to pose dramatically in silhouette to show off the more salient aspects of her talent is Eva Mendes, who pouts and flirts as the inevitable TV reporter and ex-girlfriend.

Mainly the movie's about riding a bike at the speed of sound while your head is burning. They can do anything these days, which isn't quite the same as saying they should do anything these days.

Ghost Rider (105 minutes, at area theaters) is PG-13 for stylized violence and random fire.

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