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`Rider' stays on track but doesn't catch fire

February 17, 2007|Michael Ordona | Special to The Times

He's a black-leather-clad, flaming skeleton on a motorcycle made of hellfire. And he's the good guy.

Since the '70s, the Marvel comic character Ghost Rider has been the superhero-nerd's rebel. He has never been a mega-seller, with his stories' frequent satanic references and his cruelty when dispatching the wicked. Downright judgmental, that dude is, but cool nonetheless.

Did I mention his head is a flaming skull?

Now that digital effects have made it possible to realize just about anything the deranged minds of comic book artists can forge, a film version of the ultimate Hell's Angel seemed a natural. A super-natural, even. And with writer-director Mark Steven Johnson -- whose much-maligned "Daredevil" was remarkably faithful in tone to its comic source -- at the handlebars, "Ghost Rider" looked promising.

Well ... it's not a total wipeout.

Motorcycle daredevil Johnny Blaze sells his soul to Mephistopheles (Peter Fonda) to save his dad from cancer, but -- surprise! -- the deal goes sour. Eventually Johnny (Nicolas Cage, with distractingly bad hair) has to pay the debt by taking a night job as the Ghost Rider to send Mephisto's bratty son Blackheart (the always-effective Wes Bentley) back to hell. And there's a romance with Johnny's childhood sweetheart, Roxanne (Eva Mendes).

The film spends its first hour slipping gears as if its clutch were bedeviled. Moaning cliches haunt every cranny, including the worn-out dialogue and the uninspired cinematic language (the fateful moment staged at an actual crossroads, etc.).

"Ghost Rider" also has its fun moments. The gag of Johnny trying more and more impossible stunts is amusing, although someone should have told the filmmakers it's more than 300 feet from goal post to goal post on a football field. And Cage gets to say, "I feel much better now that I know I'm the devil's bounty hunter."

The Ghost Rider himself is the movie's combustion engine, raising hell (literally) as he burns up the road (also literally).

But he doesn't arrive until nearly halfway through, which only highlights how the scenes without him can't hold a candle to those with him.

Attempts to flesh out Johnny Blaze with such quirks as a love of jelly beans and the Carpenters fizzle out.

It's entertaining to watch ol' hothead do his thing with his fiery chain and his "penance stare," but for a comic book with a rebel spirit, the adaptation feels obediently conventional.

"Ghost Rider." MPAA rating: PG-13 for horror violence and disturbing images. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes. In general release.

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