Placed alongside such primetime Sony/Marvel Comics movies as the "Spider-Man" franchise, "Ghost Rider" is strictly matinee material. Though the superhero's fans have long awaited his close-up, the Devil's bounty hunter materializes in a movie that never measures up to his infernal potential.

Placed alongside such primetime Sony/Marvel Comics movies as the “Spider-Man” franchise, “Ghost Rider” is strictly matinee material. Though the superhero’s fans have long awaited his close-up, the Devil’s bounty hunter — complete with a burning skull for a head and a killer motorcycle in flames –materializes in a movie that never measures up to his infernal potential. Yet another lucrative day-in-the-park job for Nicolas Cage typifies pic’s constant feeling of routine, while Sony’s day-and-date release in several international markets is a savvy way to collect as much coin as soon as possible before the fires go out.

“Ghost Rider” would have been most fun had it been made for a dime by a Roger Corman-type outfit as a quickie Gothic adventure spinning Zane Grey, “Faust” and Evel Knievel. In other words, precisely the kind of project studios simply can’t make anymore.

Pic also would have been more enjoyable had Mark Steven Johnson not been tempted to both write and direct.

Young motorcycle stunt driver Johnny Blaze (Matt Long) is following in the tiremarks of his dad Barton (Brett Cullen), but when he learns that dad is dying of cancer, Mephistopheles (Peter Fonda) comes calling. His Faustian bargain: Johnny’s soul for Barton’s full recovery.

Barton’s ensuing fatal accident wasn’t part of the deal, and even a budding romance with Roxanne (Raquel Alessi) doesn’t stop the broken-hearted Johnny from hitting the road.

Dissolve to Johnny as a grown-up Nicolas Cage, having far out-paced Barton’s modest carnival act with a huge arena show in which he jumps dozens of trucks, and even a football field full of Black Hawk helicopters. (Those tempted to compare the movie’s own beefed-up self to its true pulp origins can insert thoughts here.) What astounds Team Blaze, led by Mack (Donal Logue), is how Johnny pushes so far beyond the envelope in stunt after stunt, while remaining unscathed.

Prelude (narrated by the great sandy voice of Sam Elliott) about a ghost rider out of the Old West comes full circle with the arrival of Blackheart (Wes Bentley), Mephistopheles’ ungrateful and soulless son, aiming to get the devil’s contract that the old ghost rider took for his own and buried somewhere. With said contract, Blackheart can supposedly suck up evil souls to dominate the planet.

Looking like a grown version of Butch Patrick Billy Mummy in “The Munsters,” saddled with many of pic’s uproariously lousy lines and urged to overplay every moment, Bentley has too many deficits going in to be a genuine threat to Cage’s Johnny, once Mephistopheles recruits his bounty-hunting services. This, of course, complicates Johnny’s stabs at renewing the love thing with Roxanne, who reappears in the form of Eva Mendes as an “Eyewitness News”-style Lois Lane covering local stories.

After a protracted 40 minutes, final hour at least gets down to the main event, pitting Ghost Rider vs. Blackheart and his easily dispatched gang of angel rejects in a series of nighttime bouts (our hero, vampire-like, spouts a skull and flames only after sunset), some of them in the middle of the unnamed city, finishing with an effects-heavy battle in a Mexican ghost town. Crucial to Ghost Rider’s powers — and his victory over Blackheart — is his ability to grab a bad guy and force him to feel the pain of the souls he’s harmed.

A wittier writer could have mined much amusement between Johnny and Roxanne, and a keen-eyed director could have turned pic’s contests and exchanges into dazzling bouts of evil vs. highly compromised good. But on both fronts, Johnson’s work smacks of pure recycling from other, better superhero adventures. Even the promise of new effects feels tired here, with nothing that hasn’t been seen before (such as several repeated effects involving sand, dirt and decay) in, for example, “The Mummy” movies.

Lacking any pleasurable chemistry with the miscast Mendes, who looks mostly nonplussed by all the Mephistophelean goings-on, Cage is allowed to have a few moments of subversive comedy in an otherwise stunningly bland role. Image of Ghost Rider’s fiery hog may have inspired the hiring of Easy Rider Fonda, who keeps his scenes crisp and mean. Elliott, providing the load of pic’s expository background, is the acting equivalent of a nice swig of whiskey.

Oz production locales are never betrayed in a story set in Texas, and production designer Kirk M. Petrucelli and lenser Russell Boyd capture pic’s contrasting big-city environs and Western exteriors.

Ghost Rider

Production

A Sony Pictures Entertainment release of a Columbia Pictures presentation in association with Crystal Sky Pictures in association with Relativity Media. Produced by Avi Arad, Steven Paul, Michael De Luca, Gary Foster. Executive producers, E. Bennett Walsh, Arad, Stan Lee, Norm Golightly, David S. Goyer, Lynwood Spinks. Directed, written by Mark Steven Johnson; story, Johnson, based on the Marvel comic.

Crew

Camera (Cinevex Melbourne color, Deluxe prints; Panavision widescreen), Russell Boyd; editor, Richard Francis-Bruce; music, Christopher Young; music supervisor, Dave Jordan; production designer, Kirk M. Petrucelli; supervising art director, Richard Hobbs; art director, Peter Russell; set designers, Axel Bartz, Edward Cotton; set decorator, Suza Maybury CQ; costume designer, Lizzy Gardiner; makeup/hair, Lesley Vanderwait; sound (Dolby Digital/SDDS/DTS), Gary Wilkins; sound designer, Dane A. Davis; supervising sound editor, Davis; re-recording mixers, Gary C. Bourgeois, Greg Orloff; visual effects supervisor, Kevin Mack; visual effects, Café FX; digital effects supervisor, Kee-Suk Ken Hahn; special visual effects, Sony Pictures Imageworks; special effects supervisor, Peter Stubbs; special effects makeup supervisor, David Elsey; stunt coordinator, Glenn Boswell; assistant director, PJ Voeten CQ; second unit director, Kimble Rendall; second unit camera, Brad Shield; casting, Juel Bestrop CQ, Jeanne McCarthy, Christine King. Reviewed at AMC Century City 14, Los Angeles, Feb. 16, 2007. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 110 MIN.

With

Johnny Blaze/Ghost Rider - Nicolas Cage Roxanne Simpson - Eva Mendes Blackheart - Wes Bentley Caretaker - Sam Elliott Mack - Donal Logue Young Johnny Blaze - Matt Long Mephistopheles - Peter Fonda Barton Blaze - Brett Cullen Young Roxanne Simpson - Raquel Alessi
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