It's said that the West was built on legends. Tall tales that help us make sense of things too great or too terrifying to believe.
This is the legend of the Ghost Rider.
Nicholas Cage has done a lot of movies – some good, some pretty bad – over the years. Of all his movies I've seen, my favorite remains Ghost Rider.
Part of the first new wave of superhero movies (which was sparked by the success of Spider-Man), Ghost Rider tells the story of Johnny Blaze, a son of a stunt motorcycle driver (and a good stunt driver himself) who signs his soul (not entirely knowingly) over to Mephistopheles in exchange for curing his father's cancer. His father was indeed cured… but died the very next day performing one of his stunts, an accident that Johnny is certain Mephistopheles caused.
Johnny resolves not to serve the demon due to this betrayal, but Mephistopheles warns him that he will come to collect one day… and does, turning him into an agent of vengeance known as the Ghost Rider, a combination of man and demon who rides a hell-steed (or, in Johnny's case, hell-bike) and punishes the wicked. This happens to serve the interests of Mephistopheles because the demon has a son named Blackheart who intends to move against his father… and has discovered a source of power, an uncollected contract of a thousand corrupt souls, that might let him succeed. Only the Ghost Rider – whose prior incarnation refused to collect the contract – can stop Blackheart from collecting the Contract of San Venganza.
The movie version of Ghost Rider combines aspects of a couple of the comic-book versions of Ghost Rider – the name and general background of Johnny Blaze with some of the powers and other aspects of other incarnations, particularly Daniel Ketch.
What was particularly appealing in this adaptation of Ghost Rider was the heavy Western theme; the movie opens with a narration (by Sam Elliott, quoted above) that sets the tone for the movie. Ghost Rider is a story of choices, mistakes, falls, and redemptions, themes common in many settings and almost omnipresent in Westerns. Johnny Blaze is tricked into selling his soul, and then blames (probably correctly) the demon for tricking him into it… but also blames himself.
Johnny leaves everything he cared for behind, pouring himself into stunt driving as an escape and a memorial to his father while otherwise cutting himself off from human contact, afraid of what price Mephistopheles will eventually demand of him. He risks his life in apparently-fatal stunts multiple times, and suspects that part of his apparent luck is that Mephistopheles won't let him die yet.
And as soon as he begins to believe that perhaps he is being paranoid, that maybe he isn't cursed… that's when the demon shows up to collect. Again, this fits with the Western theme, transplanted to the modern era; the old sin, the old bad companion, always turns up at the worst possible moment.
Yet things are not all bad, and Johnny does have a chance – one given him by his probably-not-at-all-coincidental meeting with a caretaker of a small church who has unusual insight into Johnny's problem… and a special secret of his own. In the end, the Ghost Rider must confront Blackheart in the dead ghost town of San Venganza, where a thousand corrupt souls wait in limbo to be claimed or released…
Nicholas Cage's version of Johnny Blaze makes use of Cage's often understated screen presence, emphasizing that this is a man to whom control is paramount in importance, and that he's had hard life lessons on just what terrible prices he might pay for momentary indulgences of his own emotions. This works very well for Ghost Rider, and I think Cage was in fact the right choice for this role. The rest of the cast – Sam Elliott as the Caretaker, Peter Fonda as Mephistopheles, Eva Mendes as Roxanne, and others – did their jobs very well, too, but this was Johnny Blaze's story, and Cage brought a quiet focus, desperation, and determination to the character that gave the weight necessary to make a hell-born hero work.
I remain somewhat puzzled by the rather negative reactions to this film. I felt that it was very well done for what it was, with striking visuals, good character development for a superhero film, excellent villains and well choreographed combats, and an absolutely kickass score. Christopher Young's soundscore for Ghost Rider is simply perfect – dramatic, Western-themed, dark, and powerful.
Despite the negative reviews, I think this was a very good superhero movie of the darker persuasion – although light very definitely has a victory – and I recommend it to anyone who enjoys such films!