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CAGE'D HEAT THIS GHOST RIDER BRINGS A DIFFERENT KIND OF FIRE TO THE MARVEL COMICS HERO.

Byline: Bob Strauss

Film Writer

It seems like every comic book gets made into a movie these days.

But some are harder to put on the screen than others. The new "Ghost Rider," for example.

It took about 10 years to settle on an approach, a cast and a tone for the outre Marvel Comics property. Understandable, since the hero is under blood-signed contract to serve Mephistopheles -- and when he's not just daring motorcycle stunt driver Johnny Blaze, his head bursts into a flaming skull.

By comparison, Spider-Man looks perfectly normal. And after spending a reported $120 million to make the "Ghost Rider" movie, Columbia Pictures is still apparently concerned that it might be too off-track for some viewers. The studio didn't screen the film for critics until Thursday night, a sure sign of marketing jitters.

But sheer weirdness was one of the things that attracted Hollywood's least-conventional superstar, Nicolas Cage, to the project. A boyhood fan of the comics, Cage saw "Ghost Rider" as the perfect vehicle to bring the behavioral ingenuity from his art films ("Adaptation," "Wild at Heart," the Oscar-winning "Leaving Las Vegas") to the action blockbuster field where he has enjoyed remarkable commercial success ("The Rock," "Face/Off," "National Treasure").

"I feel I'm able to introduce many people to the character," Cage reckons. "Spider-Man, Superman and Batman are characters that really need no introduction; one could argue that those movies would be successful in any event, with any cast.

"This, we had to build from scratch. This is really a philosophical character dressed in a popcorn movie's clothes. It's dealing with bargains with the wrong types of energy."

Or, basically, Faust on a Harley. Beside his love for comics -- born Nic Coppola, the actor took his stage name from the Marvel title "Luke Cage, Hero for Hire," and in 2005 named his infant son Kal-el, which is Superman's Kryptonian moniker -- Cage is a huge motorcycle enthusiast. But that wasn't all that made the movie seem like hellish hog heaven.

Writer-director Mark Steven Johnson, another comics nut who made the indifferently received "Daredevil" movie a few years back, let Cage rework the "Ghost Rider" script to suit his vision of Johnny Blaze.

"Nic has a way of looking at things that, sometimes, people think is just quirky, but it's actually really honest," says Johnson. "People are weird, we're all very weird. But I think when we see people do something that's weird but honest, we like them."

Following that logic, Cage changed the cursed cyclist from a hard-drinking, death-metal-blasting haunted soul into a jellybean-devouring teetotaler who prefers to stay mellow by listening to Carpenters songs. He also goofily pursues his lifelong love, Roxanne, played by Eva Mendes, who's quite naturally perplexed whenever she's stood up because of a flaming skull outbreak.

Then he really starts acting freaky.

"Nic has this ability to be a symbol of suffering and find the depth in this character that's really unique," notes Avi Arad, the former head of Marvel Entertainment and one of "Ghost Rider's" producers. "At the same time, he carved out a really weird Nic Cage performance. The last time I've seen him like that was 'Moonstruck.' And you need these two personalities; you can't fake those moods, and then the bravado of the Ghost Rider himself."

Of course, once Blaze transformed into the Rider, a lot had to be faked. Though it's Cage's voice we hear coming from the skull's lipless mouth, its sound has been electronically altered into something otherworldly. Cage did as much driving and fighting as he was allowed to, but many of those leather-clad torsos belong to stunt doubles.

Nic's noggin

And of course, the fire-framed skull and bony hands are pure computer graphics, although the head is modeled on an X-ray of Cage's actual cranium. Persuasively animating these elements was by far the toughest nut to crack.

"Gollum (from "Lord of the Rings") and Davy Jones ("Pirates of the Caribbean") are two of the best CG characters right now," Johnson says. "But they're great because they've got eyes, you know what I mean? Eyes, wrinkles, lips, tongue -- that stuff gives a character expression. We don't have anything, we just have a blank slate. So the fire was really important to become an extension of his personality."

And that required, at one point, writing a whole new computer program to redo the fire effects, following the leaks of some early test footage onto the Internet that predictably sent the fanboy community into cyber-apoplexy.

"Fire is really not very exciting unless you can manipulate it," producer Arad says. "So I think that we were fortunate (the project) didn't get off the ground for 10 years. These kind of projects take time, and you can almost get lucky when you don't make them because the technology cannot support the story."

Declaring themselves 100 percent satisfied with the effects' final look, the filmmakers say that they have nothing to hide -- despite critics' complaints about the 11th-hour screenings, which were too late for opening-day reviews to be written in time for most print publications.

"I love this movie, and Nic does too," Johnson says. "If someone doesn't like it, that's cool, say whatever you want about it. But at least see it. Don't rip into something that anyone does before you at least give it a chance."

Then there are those fussy comic book fans. Remember when they went ballistic over the casting of Jessica Alba as the Fantastic Four's Invisible Girl a few years ago? Well, Mendes looks even less like her magazine incarnation than Alba did. But she's confident that she'll satisfy the geeks.

Threw them a curve

"In the comic book, Roxanne is very voluptuous, blond hair, blue eyes, Caucasian -- and I'm not Caucasian, I'm a terrible blond, and I don't have blue eyes," the Latina actress, Revlon model and former California State University, Northridge, student chuckles.

"So I figured, let's play up my, let's say, voluptuous nature, and in that way be honest to the look of a real comic book heroine."

Cage makes no apologies for his own offbeat approach to superheroics. Whether that cost him the title role in a Superman movie project some years back remains a topic of speculation. But the actor is convinced that the producers of "Ghost Rider" knew what they were getting.

Plenty of latitude

"I think people know that I try to find something new in every character I do," Cage says. "I've been pretty lucky so far; they've given me a lot of room. I feel good that when I start a movie, especially a large adventure-based movie, that they know I'm going to try to contribute to the script and get it to a place that I feel is natural with my interests."

And those interests include undeniable affection and respect for the source material.

"I was into the Marvel monsters, the Hulk and Ghost Rider," Cage points out. "I found anything scary and at the same time good -- like those two characters -- compelling.

"I think I've gotten a lot of inspiration from comic books. Although I haven't read one in a long time, I'm loyal to my roots, and I certainly enjoyed comics as a child. And I'm happy to have made one into a movie, especially one as unusual and original as 'Ghost Rider.' "

Bob Strauss (818) 713-3670

bob.strauss@dailynews.com

CAPTION(S):

3 photos

Photo:

(1 -- cover -- color) hell raiser

'Ghost Rider' blazes a Nicolas Cage-ignited trail from comic strip to screen

(2) Nicolas Cage brings his offbeat interpretation of cursed cyclist Ghost Rider to the screen, with Eva Mendes as girlfriend Roxanne.

(3) no caption (scene from "Ghost Rider")
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Feb 16, 2007
Words:1280
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