Usually, when the movie studios don't prescreen a film for critics, it's not only terrible; it's fabulously terrible, the kind of thing that stars Milla Jovovich's bare midriff and 100 heavily armed zombie robot dogs.
Sadly, Ghost Rider, which was not prescreened for critics, is terrible in a completely nonfabulous way. It's just low-end mediocrity, fairly boring, with only a few glimpses of deep awfulness to carry weary audiences through to its inevitable ending.
One of those few truly, wonderfully awful things is Nicolas Cage's manically bad acting. It's like he's doing an impression of a drunk guy doing an impression of Elvis.
The other wonderfully awful things in Ghost Rider are such 1960s schlock-house clichés as motorcycles, biker bars, Satan stealing souls, sloppy editing and acting that has the professionalism of a high school performance of A Streetcar Named Desire where the cast has just left a drunken orgy backstage and are still wiping the cocaine off their upper lips.
The awfulness is no surprise, though, when you learn that Ghost Rider is written and directed by Mark Steven Johnson, the genius who wrote and directed Daredevil and produced and wrote Elektra. With Ghost Rider, he's now been responsible for the three worst superhero movies of the last decade. Which makes me think that Hollywood is run on the same system as the federal government, where incompetence is rewarded.
Anyway, Ghost Rider is the story of Johnny Blaze, a young sideshow performer who is so bland that his father is dying of cancer (because blandness causes cancer). Young Johnny Blaze is played by Matt Long, who is one of the few people in Southern California who's a worse actor than Nicolas Cage.
Later, we see that young Johnny Blaze has grown up enough to be played by Cage, who has the singular distinction of looking absolutely nothing like Long. Maybe the change is due to the fact that Johnny Blaze made a deal with Satan--a deal, apparently, to have his face morph from something you'd see in a Calvin Klein ad to something you'd see float to the surface just before you hit flush. In a smart acting move, Cage also adopts a weird Elvis accent that makes him sound nothing like Long, perhaps in order to distract from how little he looks like Long.
Johnny Blaze's childhood sweetheart, Roxie, is played by Raquel Alessi as a teenager and Eva Mendes as an adult. This is strange, because Alessi at least looks something like Mendes, and because, while Johnny Blaze has aged 20 years, Roxie has only aged about five. Also, and tragically, no one could find a blouse big enough to cover Mendes' breasts, so she spends the whole movie just about busting out of her clothes. Frankly, I would think that with so much chest flesh so constantly exposed, she'd get pneumonia, and my prayers go out to her.
Anyway, Johnny Blaze, seeking to avert his father's death by boredom, signs his soul over to the devil, which is always a bad idea (cf. Ari Fleischer, Scott McClellan and Tony Snow). Thus, he has to break up with Roxie, or his flaming genitals will cause some kind of irreparable and Satanic problems for her.
The story then picks up 20 years later for Johnny, and, as noted above, five years later for Roxie. Johnny has become a famous motorcycle stunt rider, and Roxie has become a famous TV reporter. It's like they have the two shallowest jobs in the world.
The weird thing is that this is 30 minutes into the film, and there's still no plot. So suddenly, the son of Satan appears and tries to usurp his father by doing evil in a cool way that grown-ups would never understand.
Satan will have none of this, so he turns Johnny Blaze into the Ghost Rider and sends him after Satan Jr. This gives Blaze a flaming motorcycle, a bunch of superpowers and an interminable backstory.
Which is where Sam Elliott comes in. Elliott plays The Old Guy Who Explains Stuff. He just sort of randomly wanders into scenes and starts doing narration, which would be OK, except that he does the same explanations several times, as though the filmmakers were afraid we'd forget what he'd said a few minutes earlier.
It could happen. The editing is slack enough that I imagine some audience members might take a quick nap while waiting for a scene to end, and then oversleep and miss something important.
Which is really the saddest thing about Ghost Rider: If you tightened it up by about 30 minutes, you'd have a reasonably entertaining dumb action film. Unfortunately, as so often happens in Hollywood, no one was willing to tell the director "no," and we're stuck with what might wind up being America's great gift to world cinema: dull action.