'Rider' is a ghost of a comic book adaptation

In the opening credits of “Ghost Rider,” a fiery line of text proclaims that the movie is “Based on the Marvel comic.” And it is, but only in the simplest sense. If the film is being entirely truthful with the audience, that particular credit should read “Very, very loosely based on the Marvel comic.” Yes, to my utmost dismay, “Ghost Rider” strays from its graphic novel roots within ten minutes. And it doesn’t merely stray – it veers off in to the opposite direction and rides off into the sunset.

Johnny Blaze (portrayed in his adult years by Nicolas Cage) is a young, hotshot motorcyclist who sells his soul to Satan in exchange for his father’s life. He becomes Ghost Rider, a fiery, skeleton-like apparition, under contract to do the devil’s bidding. Donning a studded-leather jacket, Ghost Rider roams the streets on his hellish chopper, seeking out those who have escaped Hell’s wrath. But when Blaze begins to gain control of his powers, he turns them to his own devices.

As a geek pretty well versed in the Ghost Rider mythology, I was disgruntled by the way the film handled the character. In the comics, Blaze is a tortured soul. He is cursed, forced to become the flame-skulled Ghost Rider night after night. He is viewed by the public as a monster, rather than a superhero. Blaze, at times, even considers death as an alternative to his hellish lifestyle.

But the Johnny Blaze of the film is a happy-go-lucky hotshot, relishing in his newfound power with a manic cheerfulness. Not only that, but the mantle of Ghost Rider isn’t really a curse in the film – instead, Blaze is able to change seemingly at will, in complete control of his “curse.” At one point, he even changes in broad daylight. For me, a comic purist, this was simply infuriating to watch. The ability to transform into a flaming skeleton at any time of your own volition isn’t a cure – it’s awesome.

Cage contributes heavily to the ruin as well. For starters, he’s about twenty years too old. He conducts himself on screen with a hammy disregard for the character, which surprises me given the fact that he’s an avid comic collector. I mean, what is his deal lately? He was completely ridiculous in “The Wicker Man,” the worst film of last year, and now this? I miss the Nicolas Cage of “Adaptation” and “Matchstick Men.” Any chance you’re going to start being in good movies again, Nick?

At this point, I know what you’re thinking: “But Matt, what if I’m not a hopeless comic book geek with no life? What if I couldn’t care less if Nicholas Cage resembles the Johnny Blaze of the comics?” Well, looking at the film from a non-nerd standpoint, it still has little going for it.

Unfortunately, the film’s problems stretch far beyond the reach of nerdom. The plot is stifling formulaic, to the point where it feels more like a series of boss fights in a video game, rather than a movie. And yes, the action is taught and exciting and the special effects are top-notch (the first transformation, in which Blaze’s skin literally burns away to reveal the hideous skull beneath, is especially awesome), but ultimately, it’s just not enough to keep this floundering ship afloat.

With “Ghost Rider,” we have a passably entertaining popcorn flick. As far as comic adaptations go, it’s a bit better than “Fantastic Four,” but nowhere near “Batman Begins” or “Spider-Man 2” territory.

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