Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
We’re prepping for the next Zeitgeist ’22! online talk, presented by Scarecrow Video, which happens Wed. June 22 at 7 pm Pacific Time. You might want to register now.
Our subject is “International Treasure: The Massive Talent of Nicolas Cage,” and we’ll be doing a survey of the actor’s one-of-a-kind career. That means I’ve been re-watching a few key titles and seeing some of Cage’s work, especially from the last few busy years, for the first time. This has led me to pluck a couple of vintage reviews from the moment when Cage seemed to segue from his successful career as an indie icon and Hollywood leading man to a new phase of sometimes inexplicable choices. And so, something on Next and Ghost Rider.
Precognition is a double-edged sword, as Nicolas Cage discovers in “Next.” On the one hand, the ability to see two minutes into the future means you can win at blackjack and correct romantic moves that misfire.
On the other hand…wait, what’s the downside? Oh, right: the government might find out about your talent and force you to track down terrorists with a nuclear bomb.
So it goes in “Next,” which bends its own rules too often, even if it provides some popcorn entertainment. It begins well, with Cage cast as a greasy, small-time Las Vegas magician who mixes his authentic pre-cog talent with some dumb tricks. When a woman (Jessica Biel), who has haunted his flash-forward visions, finally shows up in his life, Cage has it made. Except that FBI agent Julianne Moore demands his help with the whole nuclear-bomb thing.
If it weren’t for some bewildering plot holes, “Next” would be a nice time-killer. Director Lee Tamahori (“Die Another Day”) generally brings conviction to his films, even when the material is preposterous, and in Julianne Moore the movie has a better-than-usual antagonist for Cage to fight (she’s a hard-headed agent of the Jack Bauer variety).
The script is based on the story “The Golden Man,” by Philip K. Dick. Dick’s ideas fueled the movies “Blade Runner” and “Minority Report,” but “Next” doesn’t get much going beyond the basic concept.
And even that gets fudged. Some of the biggest moments in the movie rely in Cage being able to suddenly extend his power of clairvoyance hours into in the future, even though we are repeatedly told his limit is two minutes.
The problems would also be solved if he would simply agree to help the government stop the terrorists, which sounds reasonable enough. At one point, with his eyes propped open “Clockwork Orange” style, Cage worries that if he cooperates once, the government will never let him go.
Yeah, but still…it’s a nuclear bomb. Maybe just this once?
Nicolas Cage’s performances are generally either sincere or nutty, but this one fall somewhere in between. His wig does a good job. He hasn’t been making great movies lately (“The Wicker Man,” “Ghost Rider”), but his choices indicate a man having a good time.
One unforgivable thing: setting up wonderful Peter Falk as a supporting character, and then dropping him after a couple of scenes. You don’t do that to Columbo.
Somehow the title “Ghost Rider,” with its hints of road-movie coolness, sounds like a Nicolas Cage film. But who could have expected that the title character would be a motorcycle stuntman whose head bursts into flame because he sold his soul to the devil?
On second thought, we’re talking about Nicolas Cage here. Maybe this role is destiny.
“Ghost Rider” is based on a Marvel Comics character. After selling his soul to Satan (Peter Fonda—hey, it’s a motorcycle movie, who else?), stunt rider Johnny Blaze (Cage) is tapped for battle against a demon named Blackheart (Wes Bentley).
Blackheart has come to Earth for a reason, and if I understood the reason I would explain it. It has something to do with names on a scroll that Blackheart wants to possess and that an old Ghost Rider refused to hand over to the Devil.
Anyway, Johnny Blaze has been living with the knowledge of his eventual eternal damnation for some time. But not until halfway through the movie does he transform into Ghost Rider: a skeleton clad in leather, shooting flames from every orifice and riding the streets alone.
Well, we’ve all had nights like that. But Ghost Rider also has the Penance Stare, which confronts evildoers with their past crimes. Truly, this qualifies as one of the lamest of superhero powers.
“Ghost Rider” scores points for the casting of Fonda (hanging loose as always) and Sam Elliott, who would be an icon of Western movies if people still made Westerns. Elliott takes on the role of wizened sage—the part Kris Kristofferson played in “Blade,” although Elliott has a better saddle-up-for-battle moment.
There must be a love story, and for Johnny Blaze it comes with childhood sweetheart Roxanne (Eva Mendes). Mendes plays a TV reporter inexplicably drawn to this loner who listens to the Carpenters and eats jellybeans out of a martini glass.
All of which makes it sound as though Cage might be up to one of his wacko performances, but it looks as though the days of “Vampire’s Kiss” are behind us. Sure, he gives a few Elvis gestures (he always manages to sneak in some Elvis) and adds some spirited cackling to his fiery transformation scene. But once you’ve seen a man’s head morph into a flaming skull, it loses its kick in repeated iterations.
Director Mark Steven Johnson also made “Daredevil,” and his bland approach suggests a new subject is needed. The film was shot in Australia, and looks cheap although it probably cost a lot. The effects are good, but for long periods we lose Nicolas Cage’s face, which creates a disconnect with our hero (the masked man of “V for Vendetta” had this problem, too). Naturally, it would be impossible to actually set Cage’s head on fire. But at one point in his career, he probably would’ve tried it.
June 10, 2022
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.