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A teenage stunt rider named Johnny Blaze makes a deal with a mysterious man to save his dad from the ravages of cancer. And the very next day Dad is feeling great ... moments before he dies in a fiery motorcycle crash. The stranger—Mephistopheles by name—is obviously behind it and when Johnny confronts him, the deceiver tells him that he lived up to his end of the bargain (Dad was cancer free when he died), so Johnny will someday need to live up to his.
"Forget about friends, forget about family, forget about love," the devil croaks during a confrontation at that quintessential deserted crossroads location. "You're mine!" The young man is forced to leave his beautiful girlfriend, Roxanne, standing in the rain as he rides off into the darkness.
About 20 years later Johnny Blaze is the world's greatest motorcycle jumper, a title he mostly owes to the fact that the devil won't let him die to get out of their deal. Johnny sits on top of the Evel Knievel pack, but is always wanting to push a little further, looking for a sign that he can change his destiny. Or, as he puts it, "That I can take a negative and turn it into a positive." And then Mephistopheles shows up again, offering him the chance to reclaim his soul if he'll transform into the ghost rider, (the devil's bounty hunter) and track down a renegade demon named Blackheart.
The crux of the story is based on the fact that Johnny, as a young man, is so distraught over his father's cancer that he signs away his soul to save him. And that goodness of heart even manages to come through when he's in ghost rider form. His body is replaced by that of a demon with a flaming skull, and Johnny isn't in complete control of what he does, but he manages to help on occasion an innocent person who is being hurt or attacked. Indeed, Johnny vows to use his dark powers to defend the helpless and to battle the devil himself. (More on the spiritual implications of that later.)
Johnny's best friend, Mack, is very concerned with Johnny's safety and repeatedly tries to talk him out of attempting dangerous jumps. When Johnny and Roxanne reunite, he looks for a way to apologize for leaving her alone and without explanation. Roxanne steps up to protect Johnny, with only a shotgun, when he's being attacked by Blackheart.
First and foremost, there's that teeny, tiny matter of selling your soul to the devil. That would certainly count as spiritual content. And it gets even more twisted up when it's said that one who sells his soul for love has God on his side.
Most of the action—which is nonstop—has a hellish context. When Mephistopheles grants Johnny the ghost rider power, he calls it a "curse." The ghost rider has an offensive weapon called the "penance stare." He pronounces an evildoer guilty, bids him to look into his eyes and says, "Your soul is stained by the blood of innocents. Feel their pain." The thugs then experience an onslaught of memories of the many people they've harmed and feel an excruciating flood of pain that sears them and leaves them senseless with blank burning eyes.
After Johnny has a violent motorcycle crash and once again comes out of it unscratched, Mack says, "You got an angel lookin' after you." Johnny turns away and mouths what everyone watching has already thought, "Maybe it's something else." Johnny believes meeting Roxanne again has spiritual connotations. "This is a sign. There are no accidents," he gushes.
As if to prove that everything we're watching is designed to be silly, not serious or theological, Roxanne confers with her Magic 8 Ball. The attempt doesn't work. Especially considering the fact that Johnny studies a number of religious/occult texts, and we see several prints representing ancient religions.
Johnny battles four Buffy the Vampire Slayer-esque demons. Gressil, Wallow and Abigor are identified with a picture in one text as Nephilim (the product of men and fallen angels), and are said to hide in the elements—earth, wind and water. Blackheart, meanwhile, references Mephistopheles as "Father." And he uses biblical language to proclaim, "My name is legion, for we are many."
The caretaker of a graveyard, who becomes something of a mentor to Johnny, tells him he ought to stay with him to be safe from the demons. "They can't come on hallowed ground," he promises. That doesn't make much sense, though, when we see a priest talking to Blackheart in a church sanctuary. Blackheart mockingly says, "Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. I've sinned a lot."
Roxanne exists solely to prove Johnny is consumed with emotional angst ... and to fill the screen with images of herself in slinky dresses, half-unbuttoned shirts and low-cut blouses. Women in a crowd of fans wear cleavage- and midriff-baring tops as they jump and cheer.
Johnny studies his chiseled torso in the mirror. (He's wearing a towel.) A drawing of a nude man is seen. (His crotch is obscured.) Johnny says Mack could use "a woman's touch."
Young Johnny and Roxanne kiss romantically beneath a spreading oak as the film gets underway. They kiss passionately at its end. And in between, they share a few other kisses.
Goofy, dark and sinister all at once. On numerous occasions Blackheart touches people and it's as if he burns out their hearts and drains the life out of them, leaving behind a ghoulish, gray, black-veined husk. In one instance we see a whole bar full of husks sitting at tables and slumped over on the floor. Blackheart and the other demons all show deformed and frightening faces when they attack.
When Johnny first transforms into the ghost rider it's a very painful process. We see the skin of his face sizzle and burn off, and his skull explode into flames (with the reverse effect when he changes back). He rides his motorcycle at a preternaturally breakneck speed that generates a fiery shockwave destroying cars and store windows as he passes.
After tracking him down, a large group of police open fire on the ghost rider with high-caliber rifles—ripping holes through his leather clothing. And when the rider picks a mugger up by the collar, the guy plunges a knife into his shoulder. (When he pulls it out it's glowing red with heat.)
There are several fights between the ghost rider and the demons. On their first contact, the rider is thrown back and shown hanging by the neck from a chain. He's also crushed between a semi and a train. He is smashed into brick walls, thrown to the ground, battered, drowned and choked. In retaliation, and to fulfill his end of his grim bargain, he hunts them down one by one and destroys them with his burning hands, his penance stare and/or a glowing chain.
Blackheart carelessly throws Roxanne a dozen feet into a wall. Johnny and Roxanne both shoot Blackheart repeatedly with a shotgun and the flaming supernatural version of that same gun. Blackheart calls forth a legion of evil spirits and they all violently invade his body.
There are repeated (and slow-motion) scenes of Johnny wiping out on his bike in ways that would kill anyone without help from above or below. He's reckless while riding his bike and performs dangerous front-wheel stops in moving traffic on a freeway. When he's thrown into a jail cell, inmates attack him and circle around him kicking and punching. He proceeds to explode into his fire-form.
The caretaker sews up Johnny's shoulder with a needle and thread. (We see a close-up.) Johnny's dad's last jump is shown, and while we don't see him crash, we do see him singed and dying afterwards.
Crude or Profane Language
One or two s-words. Four or five uses each of "h---" and "d--n." "Son of a b--ch" and "a--" also make appearances. God's name is misused a handful of times. Jesus' is exclaimed twice. The ghost rider makes an obscene gesture.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Johnny's stunt crew drinks and smokes. Johnny doesn't. He prefers a martini glass filled with candy. Johnny finds his dad sleeping with a bottle of alcohol nearby and a pack of cigarettes in his hand. Roxanne drinks several glasses of wine while waiting at a restaurant—to pass the time and numb the pain of being stood up. Beer and cigarettes show up at stadium events and, of course, bars.
Other Negative Elements
Since 1938 and the debut of that fella with a big yellow "S" on his chest, America has had a guilty-pleasure love affair with comic book superheroes. Years ago, my mom would tell us kids to "read something decent" because, as every mom knew, comics would rot your brain. But being a Superman fan, I knew that besides brain-rot, some of those picture books could also contain upright ideals and creative ideas.
But with its confusing concept (why does the devil's bounty hunter sporadically stop pursuing rival demons to randomly repulse muggers?), heated overacting (Nicolas Cage with his head on fire; need I say more?), twisted worldview (God loves a selfless soul seller) and nonstop bang-bang-bang-bang action, Ghost Rider has me rethinking my childhood certainties. The film seems to say it wants to be about standing against evil and rooting for second chances—with Johnny seeking any opportunity to make up for the bad choices of his past. But cursory (and perverse) nods to God only serve to remind us of how ridiculous and ugly the ghost rider's world is.
Johnny's only hope here is to "fight fire with fire," using the devil's own power to sock it to 'em, as it were. Second chances come to those who fight for them, and when push comes to shove, only the devil's power is strong enough to defeat evil. Huh?
Ghost Rider leads us down into a place awash with appealingly high-octane evil and controlled by an all-powerful hell. In Johnny's world the devil has reign over both life and death and can grant you incredibly awesome powers, making you cool and virtually invincible. [Spoiler Warning] And then Johnny chooses to keep his curse (after finally getting that second chance) and tells the devil to his face that he's going to use it to help others. This isn't Peter Parker getting bitten by a mutant spider. This is serious spiritual stuff ... stuffed into a careening comic that doesn't even know there should be a line between good and evil. Maybe Mom was more right than I ever knew.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Nicolas Cage as Johnny Blaze/Ghost Rider; Eva Mendes as Roxanne Simpson; Peter Fonda as Mephistopheles; Sam Elliott as The Caretaker