Marvel Comics has certainly enjoyed a renaissance of late. There can be no question that this entire run of comic heroes on screen began with Spider-Man. Even the recent DC reimaginings might not have gotten this second chance without everyone’s favorite web slinger, or at least the gobs of money that franchise has pulled in. While none of these recent comic films have come close to the success of Spider-Man, the studios are determined to keep the trend alive and well. That translates to great news for us. The most…recent development of this success is that lesser known comic heroes are starting to emerge on film. Ghost Rider is not quite as known around the world but is not without its loyal following. Nicholas Cage happens to be among the Ghost Rider faithful. We’re talking about a guy so into the comic scene that he named his son Jor-El (Superman). Cage, it appears, has wanted to do Ghost Rider for almost as long as he’s been acting. This unusually high level of passion for a character plays to the film’s advantage. He believes in the role and thus becomes Ghost Rider with an uncanny ease.
The Ghost Rider character has evolved more over the years than perhaps any other comic icon. The story and the character himself have gone through many significant changes. The film pays homage to a ton of this history by including elements of many of those comic runs. The writers combined some of the best elements from the whole to create a world and character that is unique, yet quite true to the spirit of the Ghost Rider. The basic story remains relatively faithful to some aspect of the story’s varied history while allowing the film to have its own distinct look and tale. Here a young Johnny Blaze discovers that his father is dying of lung cancer. Together father and son have a motorbike daredevil show. He is approached by an ominous stranger who offers to heal his father’s ailment in return for, you guessed it, his soul. I know what you’re thinking. “Boy have we seen that one a thousand times before. Believe it or not this story has a remarkable twist to the old story. Of course, the deal’s a rip-off and Johnny gets exactly what he wants but not really what he wants. It’s that old fine print stuff again. The twist is that our old devilish friend has a more complicated fate in store for Johnny. When called upon he must ride his bike as the flaming skulled Ghost Rider to do the Devil’s bid. In this film the spectral rider is called upon to collect a powerful contract , which is also goal of some rather nasty elemental bad guys. It’s a royal battle to control Hell, and Blaze is right in the middle of it.
Cage plays Johnny with a lot more heart than you might think. There are wonderful nuances to the character never seen in the more rigid comics. He has a fondness for The Carpenters, the music group, not the cabinetmakers. He eats jelly beans from a martini glass. Cage always makes Johnny Blaze an interesting character even when he’s not a pyrotechnical skeleton. Of course there is the obligatory romance. Eva Mendes plays Roxanne, his childhood sweetheart, now a journalist. The character appears a little awkward and her role in the climax is a little too sweet. Wes Bentley plays a pretty nasty villain with a Goth addiction. The two golden cast choices come first with Peter Fonda, the original easy rider playing Mestopholes. Not only is the irony clever casting but Fonda delivers quite a powerfully understated performance. The other prime role has to be Sam Elliott as the “caretaker”, a western throwback who guides Johnny through his new situation. Caretaker comes from a day when ponies didn’t come with chrome. Anyone who loves the old classic westerns has to have a soft spot for Elliott. He’s a modern American icon himself. His role as mentor fits him as well as the cowboy hat that sits comfortably on his graying head. I’d recommend this film if only to see those two performances.
The f/x are simply first rate. Fire is an extremely difficult element to pull off realistically in CG. Done the wrong way, the transformation into Ghost Rider has the potential to look downright silly. All of the good casting and writing would not have been able to save the film from disaster if our first instinct was to laugh at The Rider. The Ghost Rider looks cool (OK, that wasn’t funny). From his initial transformation to the final character, the execution is flawless. Cage brings back memories of Lon Chaney’s tortured Larry Talbot transforming against his control into the monstrous Wolf Man. The final product exudes intimidation. Most heroes simply slip into a suit where f/x serve merely to show off the powers of the hero. Here the entire character is CG driven. All of the basic elements of Ghost Rider are there from the fiery chain to the tricked out bike. The Penance stare remains the most powerful weapon. For the uninitiated, the penance stare forces the victim to experience all of the pain they caused to others.
Ghost Rider is presented in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.40:1. This is a dark film at its core. Fortunately black levels are rather nicely represented. There’s plenty of detail. Color is usually pretty natural looking but excels when the fire elements come into play. Here the transfer’s contrast really delivers the goods. The fire stands out in brilliant flashes of color often against the blackness of the film’s canvas. There is more edge enhancement here than I’ve lately become used to. Usually I have to really look, and even then only notice it in certain situations. Here it isn’t all that hard to locate, and once you do it does tend to be a distraction. This could well be the result of the film’s less common aspect ratio. The print is clean and there are no digital artifacts of any kind.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio, like the DTS, delivers a dynamic and aggressive sound. The DTS is discernable only by a slightly elevated bottom end. The difference between Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS is becoming less distinct all the time. Surrounds offer plenty of ear candy to excite all of your senses. The score blazes through the background with respectable clarity. Dialogue is well placed and always easy to understand. There are times this baby gets loud, and the subs really eat up those motorbike rumbles.
There are 2 commentary tracks available here. The first includes Mark Steven Johnson, who wrote and directed the film, and Kevin Mack the f/x supervisor. The f/x talk is really the bonus here. Mack gives likely more detail than you might want. Johnson’s role helps us to identify the extra footage included in this extended edition. I had only seen the film once before and found this useful.
The second commentary features producer Gary Foster . Here there’s simply not as much useful information, nor is it nearly as entertaining. Little new information is provided, and Foster’s voice is rather flat most of the time.
Disc two finds the remainder of this edition’s generous extras.“The Spirit Of Vengeance: The Making of Ghost Rider” You play this feature in three segments titled: Vengeance, Adventure, Execution. Most are about a half hour with the last being only about 22 minutes.“The Spirit Of Vengeance” Producer Gary Foster welcomes you to the cemetery set which is an actual location. It is here that most of this piece is centered. We get more filming footage than is normal for this kind of a thing and less of the typical fluff. The interview segments are mostly with Cage and Elliott. It’s fine stuff. Language is bleeped for some reason. Perhaps it was filmed for another venue originally. The segment rounds off with a good look at the bike and how it was created.“The Spirit Of Adventure” There’s a ton of bike work in this segment. You get to meet the stunt performers. It’s nice to see folks like Cage give these guys their props. Anyone who still rides without a helmet needs to watch this stuff. A stunt performer gets his head run over by a bike. Costumes are also discussed here with a rather startling admission that some of the materials were purchased on the black market. Exotic materials like stingray and shark skin were obtained in shady hotel rooms with briefcases of unmarked bills. Just wait until PETA sees that.“The Spirit Of Execution” This is not very terribly entertaining. We do get to see a lot of the f/x work being done. However it’s strictly fly on the wall stuff. We’re made privy to many production meetings presented rather crudely and uncut so there’s too much listening to guys go “uh huh”.
“Ghost Rider Animatrics” A little more than three minutes of the early crude animation of certain sequences in the film.
”Sin and Salvation” You select a decade from the 70’s to the 2000’s and you are treated to a nice pictorial history of the Ghost Rider character. The piece utilizes many of the artists and writers to have worked on the comic over the years. There’s a lot of rich history to explore here. I had not really read this comic as a kid, so I found the clips to be very educational.
Ghost Rider delivers exactly what it promises. Nothing more. Nothing less. You get two hours of good comic book adventure and fun. This extended package merely gives you a little more ride for your money. Luckily for you, you don’t have to have read the comics to get into this film. It’s really a modern western more than anything else. The acting is above average for this kind of a popcorn film. Cage is not very keen on sequels, but he does have a very warm place in is heart for Ghost Rider. If any character could tempt Cage into doing a sequel it is this one. If they can assemble this kind of a cast and continue the high production values I can see another ride coming my way. Will they or won’t they? “I’m counting on it.”
Special Features List
- 2 Audio Commentaries
- The Spirit Of Vengeance: The Making of Ghost Rider
- Ghost Rider Animatrics
- Sin and Salvation: The History Of Ghost Rider