With Superman, Batman and Spider-Man responsible for the lion's share of big-screen blockbusterdom these days, what's a Hollywood studio to do when it needs to save itself at the box office? Apparently, they raid the Marvel and DC vaults for any even remotely marketable, half-remembered character that they can spiff up with CGI and try to pass off as cool.
So it went with 'Ghost Rider,' the latest entry in Hollywood's continued obsession with superpowers and spandex. Though he's a character unfamiliar to most mainstream moviegoers, Sony apparently felt he had enough potential cachet to helm his own big-screen adventure. Alas, as re-imagined here, poor Ghostie seems like the second-rate character you're stuck playing in one of those Marvel Alliance videogames for the PlayStation, not a star capable of steering his own Hollywood franchise.
Johnny Blaze (Nicolas Cage) was only a teenage stunt biker when he sold his soul to the devil (Peter Fonda). Years later, Johnny is a world renowned daredevil by day, but at night, he becomes the "Ghost Rider." The devil's bounty hunter, he is charged with finding evil souls on earth and delivering them to hell. But when a twist of fate brings Johnny's long-lost love (Eva Mendes) back into his life, he realizes he just might have a second chance at happiness -- if only he can beat the devil and win back his soul. But to do so, he'll have to defeat Blackheart (Wes Bentley), the devil's nemesis and wayward son, whose plot to take over his father's realm will bring hell on earth -- unless Ghost Rider can stop him.
While it earned a more than $100 million at the domestic box office last winter, 'Ghost Rider' took a drubbing from critics and diehard fans alike. I wish I could say that the critics were wrong and this is just another case of a fun entertainment being misunderstood, but 'Ghost Rider' really does suck pretty hard. Director and screenwriter Mark Johnson previously helmed 'Daredevil,' the now-notorious Ben Affleck-in-red-spandex laugh-fest, and for my money he's batting zero-for-two. I don't know if he's just been stuck with bad comic book script adaptations or if he has a thing for low-rent, second-tier superheroes, but Johnson is fast becoming the Uwe Boll of the genre.
The film's first problem is that Nic Cage is about twenty years too old to play this part. He looks pretty ridiculous in his faux-Ghost Rider getup, and his love scenes with Mendes are extra-queasy because of the age difference. Cage is also, tonally, all over the place. It would seem that Johnson didn't know what to do with him, so he just let him go at it and figured he'd save it in the editing room. The result is a mess -- Cage pouts like a teenager on the verge of a temper tantrum one moment, than plays fiery, adult bravado the next, but the overall effect is that he just seems psychotic. Cage can be great in serious roles when he has a strong director, but in material like this, he just seems to be camping it up like it's all a lark with a big fat paycheck at the end.
Just as misguided is the script. I will freely admit that I'm not familiar with the Ghost Rider character and comic storyline, but a vast prior knowledge should not be required to understand a movie about him. The narrative is nearly-incomprehensible at times. Johnson acknowledges in this Blu-ray's supplements that the film was heavily altered during the test screening process, and indeed it feels like a case of trying to please every demographic. What falls by the wayside is clear character motivation, believable villains and a love story we care about. Every plot "twist" and emotional beat is made too clear (and usually telegraphed totally in advance), yet all the connective tissue either wasn't there in the first place, or has been test-screened right out of the movie. It's a bizarre concoction, and all of the actors, not just Cage, seem completely lost in the muddle.
It's worth noting that both the Blu-ray and standard-def DVD versions of 'Ghost Rider' are hitting video as an "Extended Cut," with nine minutes of additional footage. Alas, there is no amount of extra material that can fix the inherent problems with 'Ghost Rider.' Even though all of the added scenes are designed to further illuminate Johnny's backstory and motivations, the film is no less confusing. Aside from some neat CGI and a few enjoyable action sequences, 'Ghost Rider' doesn't offer much more than an overacting, overage Cage on a motorcycle surrounded by lots of flames. You've been warned.
'Ghost Rider' comes to Blu-ray as one of the format's most eagerly-awaited titles of the season. Not because the film is any good, but because 'Ghost Rider' by its very comic book nature promises to be great demo material for hungry high-def enthusiasts.
This 2.40:1 widescreen 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer does not disappoint. The film has a vivid, striking visual look, with rich blacks and no print issues. CGI sequences pop off the screen, with the image spit-shined to a glossy sheen that looks almost like a videogame. Contrast is certainly tweaked but not as harshly as some other recent Sony efforts, and the film's photography is big on extreme differences in light and dark areas in the same shot, which certainly enhances depth. The color palette is loaded with deep blues and fiery oranges, all of which are rock solid. Even fleshtones are spot-on -- 'Ghost Rider' looks about as natural as is possible for a comic book milieu such as this. Overall detail to the image is also truly excellent.
My only minor complaints are a very slight black crush in the shadows, and a few instances of minor noise in the darkest, flattest ares of select shots. Otherwise, 'Ghost Rider' hovers right under the very top-tier of recent Blu-ray releases.
'Ghost Rider' comes to Blu-ray with dual uncompressed PCM 5.1 surround (48kHz/16-bit/4.6mbps) and Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround (48kHz/20-bit) mixes. It's an embarrassment of riches, and quite frankly probably an unnecessary overload aside from the coolness factor in getting two high-resolution audio formats on the same disc. Both are lossless codes, and the only real difference is that PCM is a locked bitrate format while Dolby TrueHD is variable bitrate (peaking around 3.5mbps in this case). So pick your poison, and either way you're not likely be disappointed -- both deliver the goods with aplomb.
Aside from the PCM sounding a little louder than the TrueHD, after level matching I couldn't discern a difference between the two. 'Ghost Rider' has very aggressive sound design and is a treat either way. The rears are pretty much a bulldozer, with a wall of discrete effects almost constant in the action scenes. Imaging is airy, the 360-degree effect usually awesome and directional effects localized with great accuracy.
Dynamics are also superlative, with palpable tonal realism across the entire spectrum. Motorcycles roar, Wes Bentley overacts wildly and Peter Fonda mumbles between puffs of smoke, yet I could understand every last word. Low bass is also a real kicker, with some tones so deep you might want to bolt your subwoofer to the floor. Granted, there is no subtlety here, but the few straight-ahead dialogue scenes do usually have at least some minor ambiance in the rears so the track is consistently engaging. Be sure to play this one very loud -- in either PCM or TrueHD -- and you're sure to enjoy some great demo material.
'Ghost Rider' debuts on Blu-ray simultaneously with the standard-def DVD release -- the latter a two-disc set with plenty of extras. This Blu-ray edition replicates the core extras of that release, dropping only one extended featurette ("Sin and Salvation: Comic Book Origins of 'Ghost Rider'") and some (in my opinion) boring animatics. Plus, all of the video extras here are presented in 1080p, so for me, the omissions are not fatal.
The centerpiece of this package is the three-part documentary "Spirit of Vengeance: The Making of 'Ghost Rider.'" Despite it's three sections, this 82-minute monstrosity is really just one long piece that switches focus often and jumps all over the place. (Interesting Factoid: According to guild guidelines, any DVD supplement longer than 30 minutes is considered to be a full-length program, for which any actors who appear must be paid more. So whenever you see these long docs cut up into little pieces, it's usually just because the studios are being stingy with the talent.)
In any case, this one includes interviews with just about everyone (and I do mean everyone) involved with 'Ghost Rider' -- over thirty subjects in all, including director Mark Johnson, producers Gary Foster, Avi Arad, Ari Arad and Michael De Luca, visual effects supervisor Kevin Mack, production designer Kirk Petrocelli, cinematographer Russell Boyd, stunt coordinator Glenn Boswell, "motorcycle technician" Mark McKinlay, plus all the actors, among them Nicolas Cage, Eva Mendes, Wes Bentley, Peter Fonda and Sam Elliott.
After part one, which gives us the usual brief 'Ghost Rider' history, casting, etc., part two delivers the real meat, focusing on key scenes and characters, while part three offers a much more video diary-esque approach, with fewer interviews and more "you-are-there: style on-set footage. Interspersed throughout is plenty of info on the effects, including how they created the Ghost Rider on his flaming motorcycle, plus a dull detour on the film's supposed "love story." The only real disappointment here is that the otherwise comprehensice "Spirit of Vengeance" was clearly completed before 'Ghost Rider' came out, so no one addresses all the lame reviews.
Thankfully, Johnson more than takes up the challenge in his screen-specific audio commentary. He's joined by effects supervisor Mack, while producer Gary Foster gets a whole, second track of his very own. While I found Foster's to be overkill (there is much repetition of stories, only from a producer's perspective -- yawn), Johnson's is much more entertaining because he launches into a fairly heated diatribe against critics, whom he feels aharbor ill will against any comic book movie that isn't high-falutin' and stars Kate Winslet. Of course, he misses the obvious, which is that maybe that his 'Ghost Rider' really is a piece of cinematic doo-doo, but nevermind. Though Johnson's rant isn't really enough to warrant sitting through this whole track (he also covers the effects with Mack, gushes over Cage, etc.), it's certainly a humorous highlight.
Best appreciated as total camp, 'Ghost Rider' is probably the most inane and miscast comic book adaptation since 'Daredevil.' Nicolas Cage is in full-on weird mode and about twenty years too old for the part, while the script is so muddled with so many twists and tonal shifts that it's almost incomprehensive. This Blu-ray release, however, is excellent. Great video, great audio, great supplements -- this disc an across-the-board winner, sure to give your home theater a healthy workout. Too bad the movie sucks so hard.