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MOVIE REVIEW: No trailblazer, but 'Ghost Rider' still a fun little jaunt

You never know quite what you're going to get from Marvel Comics films. Will it be an epic fantasy like the "Spider-Man" series, a vivid action yarn like the "Blade" movies, or a Saturday afternoon mess like "The Punisher"? "Ghost Rider" lands closer to the slapdash end of the scale, but it's redeemed through an exquisitely strange performance by Nicolas Cage. He plays Johnny Blaze, a carnival stunt rider who sells his soul to Mephistopheles for perfectly understandable reasons. As a result, he spends his days in human form and nights as a skeleton flambée battling evildoers on a burning chopper. The film handles the premise with a sly sense of camp. When wise old gravedigger Sam Elliot explains his predicament, Cage grumbles, "Thanks for the information. I feel much better knowing I'm the Devil's bounty hunter."

The daytime Cage is without a doubt the weirder of the two identities. He plays the cursed hero as a total stiff who's trying to be Elvis. His day job involves making death-defying motorcycle jumps at NFL games and monster truck rallies, and he's the bleacher bums' hero in his slick leather jumpsuit and flame-logo helmet.

But when he has to interact with people, he recalls Lon Chaney Jr. as the wolfman, a sweet, oafish guy whose lumpen haplessness wins you over. When he's interviewed by TV reporter/love interest Eva Mendes he's as timid and tongue-tied as a fumbling adolescent.

The ever-theatrical Cage brings a nutty intensity to the part. He can make a two-second pause into a master's thesis on irony. When the time comes for him to morph into supernatural form, digital hellfire licking his face, Cage throws vein-throbbing conniption fits, determined to boil your eyeballs rightin their sockets. A sometimes great actor who has taken more than his share of paycheck parts, Cage knows all about making deals with the devil, and he keeps his end of the bargain. It's a quirky, shticky performance, but he delivers.

Writer/director Mark Steven Johnson ("Daredevil") manages to spoof superhero, Western and biker-movie cliches and also play them straight. When you stunt-cast Peter Fonda as the devil in this film, you get a respectable performance and a joke all in one. The humor pops out in unexpected moments. Blaze relaxes to the mellow sounds of the Carpenters.

Mendes, stood up at a swank restaurant, gets plastered and asks the waiter, "You think I'm pretty?" He shrugs. There's even poke-in-the-ribs art direction, with Cage riding his motorcycle through a flamboyantly fake moor with piped-in mist and absurdly gnarled trees. "Ghost Rider" isn't good but if you catch the spirit of it, it's not terrible.

**1/2 out of four stars.

Rated PG-13