Fire in the Hole: Cage is a blast as an immortal renegade.
Fire in the Hole: Cage is a blast as an immortal renegade.

A flaming skull that talks isn’t quite as ridiculous as it sounds. At least you won’t think so watching Ghost Rider, as long as you keep a few things in mind. First, it’s about a fire-friendly crusader who fights evil on his motorcycle. Second, it was written and directed by Mark Steven Johnson, the filmmaker responsible for the much-maligned Daredevil. Lastly, Oscar bait—or even People’s Choice bait—tends not to come out in February.

Nicolas Cage plays Johnny Blaze, a stunt cyclist who becomes “the devil’s bounty hunter” years after selling his soul to Mephistopheles (Peter Fonda) in exchange for the health of his cancer-ridden father. When the deal goes sour, a disconsolate Johnny (Blaze the Younger is played by Matt Long) bails on a plan to run away with his girlfriend, Roxanne (Raquel Alessi). From then on he’s determined to live as an eccentric loner devoted only to performing increasingly dangerous feats. Much to the astonishment of fans and his manager (Donal Logue), Johnny not only pulls off most of them but comes out without a scratch even when he doesn’t. This attracts the attention of the local media, including very grown-up anchor Roxanne (Eva Mendes). Johnny finds that it’s difficult to have much of a personal life, though, once his skeleton starts exposing itself and catching fire night after night.

Only fans of the comic book on which the movie is based will presumably be able to connect the dots when Satan comes calling at the peak of Johnny’s career. The devil needs a favor involving his estranged son, Blackheart (Wes Bentley), and a particular soul’s “contract” that Blackie is trying to get his hands on. So he equips Johnny with a wicked supernatural hog and makes him transform into a fiery fiend when the sun goes down. That’s all fine, but then JohnnynasnGhost Rider reflexively begins to fight crime, killing evildoers by taking their victims’ collective suffering and mirroring it back to the bad guys. Which can’t be what the Dark Lord wants, can it, Mr. Johnson? If there’s an explanation for this apparent contradiction, the audience isn’t getting one.

But it’s easy enough to let this head-scratcher slide. After all, we’re not exactly dealing with high-mindedness: There’s no I’m-OK-you’re-OK message, as in X-Men, and there’s no heavy undercurrent of angst, as in Spider-Man or Batman. Ghost Rider is about outrageous battles featuring a dude who’s engulfed in flames, and Johnson delivers the story with an entertaining mix of goofiness, mild frights, and cheese. The look of the movie is all skulls-and-spirits, with dark cinematography and quick flashes of ghostliness—say, a bit of bone showing through a face—when the immortal gets pissed off. Bad puns, scene-chewing, and Mendes’ continually straining shirts are over-the-top fun; the eyelinered Blackheart and his dumb-looking, ambiguously powered minions, Drippy, Frowny, and Dusty, are over-the-top laughable. Everybody wins.

What makes Ghost Rider especially worthwhile, though, is Cage. Reportedly a fan of the character and also a contributor to the script, Cage brings all his Elvis-wannabe coolness (along with a hairpiece) to the role, projecting mellow self-confidence whether Johnny is stumbling away from a stunt or telling his manager not to mess with the Carpenters soundtrack in his apartment. (He’s also partial to monkeys and eating candies out of a martini glass.) Cage’s delivery is more dry than menacing—“Thanks for the info. I feel much better knowing I’m the devil’s bounty hunter,” Johnny tells Sam Elliott’s weird grave-keeper after being clued into what’s happening to him. It’s an appropriate hint that the whole thing should be taken with a grain of salt—particularly the speech-heavy, bwa-ha-ha ending, which is admittedly the worst kernel of corn in the movie. But most viewers are probably waiting for a bit of flat-out badness all along—as well as a setup for the sequel.