Friday, February 16, 2007

Nicolas Cage was once attached to star in a Superman feature, but the project eventually fizzled.

Boy, did comic book fans dodge a speeding bullet.

Mr. Cage finally gets his chance to be a hero with the Marvel Comics adaptation of “Ghost Rider.” If this is how he treats a second-tier comic, we’re lucky he never got the chance to trash the Man of Steel.

“Ghost Rider” is the cursed story of Johnny Blaze (Mr. Cage), a stunt cyclist in the Evel Knievel mode who sells his soul to the devil to save his ailing pa.

But the devil doesn’t play nice, and while Johnny’s father is cured he soon finds an even worse fate.

And we don’t mean sporting the bad toupee Mr. Cage is forced to don here.

A deal’s a deal, alas, and Johnny is now at the service of Mephistopheles, played with the right amount of ham by Peter Fonda.

Years later, the Big M comes to collect. The devil’s ne’er do good son Blackheart (Wes Bentley) and his three henchmen are trying to wrestle some souls away from the old man. So Mephistopheles commands Johnny to smite Blackheart and Co. by transforming poor Johnny into the Ghost Rider. Johnny’s head turns into a fiery skull, his chopper morphs into a blazing steed of steel.

A conflicted superhero is born.

But all Johnny wants to do is reconnect with this childhood sweetheart Roxanne (Eva Mendes, playing the least convincing TV reporter in screen history).

Reconnecting with an old flame isn’t easy when you keep missing dinner dates to iron out the devil’s dysfunctional family.

Little of “Ghost Rider” is cohesive for those unfamiliar with the source material, so we’re treated to Sam Elliott as a sort of narrator-slash-western prophet. Poor Mr. Elliott mumbles reams of expository information, all the while doing what the grizzled actor does best, cocking his head and squinting one eye to tell you he’s serious.

It’s better than what we get from Mr. Cage. His Johnny Blaze speaks in an on-again, off-again Elvis Presley twang, and when he wants to make a dramatic point he majestically points his finger as if he were wearing Elvis’s white jumpsuit.

No thank you very much.

Writer/director Mark Steven Johnson drapes the entire project with a layer of cheese, but it’s never gooey enough to make “Ghost Rider” a guilty snack.

And making Johnny groove to Carpenters’ music to psych himself up for a stunt is as creepy as his flamed-out skull.

“Ghost Rider” is no “Spider-Man.” Heck, it’s less interesting than either “Daredevil” or “Elektra,” leaving the audience cursed for nearly two hours.

“Ghost Rider”

• One and a half stars

• Written and directed by Mark Steven Johnson

• Running time: 114

Sony’s Ghost Rider Web site

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