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MOVIE REVIEW

The stars might wish 'Ghost Rider' disappears

Nicolas Cage (left) and Sam Elliott in 'Ghost Rider.' Nicolas Cage (left) and Sam Elliott in "Ghost Rider.' (JASIN BOLAND)

Hark! What's that agonized shrieking rending the air? Is it the screams of the undead as their souls are consumed by the flames of the pit?

Close enough. It's the talented cast of "Ghost Rider" trying to act their way out of the movie.

Nicolas Cage, Eva Mendes, Peter Fonda, Sam Elliott, "American Beauty" discovery Wes Bentley, indie slacker Donal Logue -- oh, the carnage . How they all ended up in this goofy piece of Marvel Comics piffle about a flame-headed, cycle-ridin' emissary of Satan is a mystery best left to their agents.

"Ghost Rider" is the kind of movie that's great stupid fun as long as someone else is buying the tickets. The genre might be summed up as Redneck Horror Faust, or maybe NASCAR Goth. Johnny Blaze is a stunt cyclist who in his youth makes a deal with Mephistopheles himself to save his cancer-afflicted dad (Brett Cullen ).

The devil comes in the guise of Fonda. It's quite eerie: Fonda makes it through the entire movie without moving a single facial muscle. In the grand tradition, Scratch doesn't play fair, and we cut several years ahead to find Johnny, played by Cage, with crazy eyes, a late-Elvis voice, and a hairpiece the size of a small marsupial .

Johnny's a famous Evel Knievel -style daredevil who, thanks to the fine print on the contract, cheats death on a daily basis. The devil's evil son, Blackheart, wants to take control of the world and -- wait, why am I even bothering? All you need to know is that every night Johnny goes flame-on and morphs into a leather-clad, chain-wielding avenger with a Sterno skull and a hunka hunka burnin' hog.

Thankfully, "Ghost Rider" plays a lot of this for comedy -- at least until the special effects budget kicks in -- and Cage lets himself go loosey-goosey in a way he hasn't since, oh, "Vampire's Kiss" way back in 1989 . Johnny likes to listen to the Carpenters songs and eat jelly beans out of martini glasses, neither of which I bet were in the script by writer-director Mark Steven Johnson. Johnson was responsible for "Daredevil" and the script for "Electra." This time he seems to be in on the joke.

Eva Mendes is scrumptious as Johnny's love interest, and Sam Elliott collects a nice paycheck as a Ghost Rider of an earlier generation. The elemental Nephilim , demons who hang out with Blackheart because he's the baddest kid in school, are cool to look at but put up surprisingly little fight. The star doesn't make the same mistake. Asks Cage's Johnny, "If somebody makes a mistake -- a big mistake -- do you think they should pay for it every day for the rest of their lives?" The correct answer is: Only until their next movie.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

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