In Ghost Rider, Nicolas Cage is Johnny Blaze, a motorcycle-riding daredevil who’s also a bounty hunter for Satan with ”the power of hellfire.” Even if you haven’t seen the movie, I assume you’ve seen Cage’s flaming-skull head, Ghost Rider’s main visual attraction. Based on a Marvel Comics hero (the best DVD extra is, in fact, a history of the character’s various comic-book permutations), this isn’t much of a movie, although I dig the way Cage puts on a Southern drawl to play a hothead as a cool cat, and drinks steaming-fresh coffee right out of the pot. But as a Nicolas Cage vehicle, Rider is a fresh opportunity to give a good head-scratch at this actor’s career. Me, I think the guy’s underrated.
Ghost Rider grossed more than $224 million globally in its theatrical release; 2004’s National Treasure, which featured Cage running in search of ancient valuables, surprised the industry and movie critics by making $348 million (a sequel is under way). I’m not confusing profits with quality here — just pointing out that for a fortysomething Elvis Presley fan with a hound-dog visage and a baleful monotone voice, Cage certainly defies conventional notions of what a box office draw is supposed to be.
I think audiences respond to Cage’s soulfulness, the way he can make his deadpan expression an Everyman stare — a blank slate upon which you can project your own feelings. This quality has enabled him to stand out even in most of his big-cast, major-budget ventures.
The thing is, ever since he turned blockbuster in The Rock (1996), Cage has consistently switched up his brawny commercial choices with smaller movies that highlight his unique combo of aching sincerity and spacey humor. In the latter category, I’d cite — and recommend on DVD — his earnest police officer in World Trade Center (2006) and his acidic arms dealer in Lord of War (2005). You can’t necessarily judge Cage’s work by the company he keeps, either. Directors as heavyweight as Martin Scorsese (1999’s Bringing Out the Dead) and Brian De Palma (1998’s Snake Eyes) let him coast in his trademark manic default mode. But Spike Jonze drew out his poignancy in Adaptation (2002), and John Woo unearthed Cage’s canny impersonator with 1997’s Face/Off.
Cage won apt acclaim for his touching turn in Moonstruck (1987) and an Oscar in 1996 for Leaving Las Vegas (dissolution becomes him), but I prefer his so-over-the-top-it’s-subtle, bug-eating explosion in Vampire’s Kiss (1989), and what I think of as his great Elvis-Channeling Trilogy: Wild at Heart (1990), Honeymoon in Vegas (1992), and Red Rock West (1994).
So while Ghost Rider merits a simple C+, I urge you to dig deeper into the Cage canon for more curious, satisfying pleasures.
BACKSTORY Nicholas Cage is a hardcore fan of comic books. In 2002, he put his collection — including a copy of Action Comics #1, featuring the first appearance of Superman — up for auction. It sold for $1.6 million.