Ghost Rider| 2007
Mark Steven Johnson’s big screen outing for the popular comic book character is too daft to be a serious origins story, but too reverential to be the all-out fun it should be. To say Nicolas Cage was born to play the flaming-skull-headed biker might be overstating, but when was the last time an actor needed to have a tattoo of the character he’s playing covered up?
The story is set mainly in ‘Texas’ but was filmed entirely around the city of Melbourne in Victoria, Australia, where nearly all of the city locations were found within a 20-block radius.
Or in the studio – the prologue explaining the legend of Ghost Rider was to have been filmed in the Australian desert, but in the end it’s all CGI.
About 30 miles west of Melbourne lies the quirkily-named town of Bacchus Marsh and it’s here that the funfair, where a young Johnny Blaze does a deal with the Devil (Peter Fonda) to save the life of his stunt-riding dad, was built in an empty field on The Avenue of Honour, a road east of town lined with trees commemorating the war dead.
Johnny enjoys a brief romantic tryst, carving initials into a tree and all that, with a young Roxanne Simpson. The hill and tree were all faked for the film at Anakie, south of Bacchus Marsh toward Geelong on C141.
Realising he’s been tricked by Mephistopheles (Johnny’s dad dies anyway), Johnny takes off and leaves his old life behind, with the open country roads around Bacchus Marsh standing in for the ‘American South West’.
He keeps to the family tradition of stunt-biking, of course, clearing a row of trucks at the old, now demolished, Hunter Stand at Melbourne Showgrounds, Epsom Road, Ascot Vale, northwest Melbourne.
That’s minor stuff for the ambitious Blaze, though. He’s soon performing the ‘Leap Of Death’ over a line of rotating blades after a flight of ’copters descend through the sliding roof of the ‘SoBe Dome’, to the accompaniment of The Ride Of The Valkyrie. The spacious venue is Melbourne’s Etihad Stadium (formerly the Telstra Dome), 740 Bourke Street in Docklands. Being an Aussie rules football ground, it had to be revamped to look like an American football field.
It’s here that an old romance is rekindled when Blaze is interviewed by Roxanne (Eva Mendes) who’s all grown up.
Out in the desert, Blackheart (Wes Bentley), son of the Devil, quickly sees off the patrons of the ‘Broken Spoke’ biker bar, which was nothing more than a studio set. You can’t tell but, just in the interests of completeness, a few of the shots here had to be restaged on a set built in Vancouver, Canada.
Johnny is revisited by his old chum the Devil, who gives him the order to destroy Blackheart. The film can’t resist an in-joke here for bike fans, who’ll no doubt have recognised that Johnny Blaze’s chopper is based on Fonda’s ‘Captain America’ panhead Harley Davidson from Easy Rider.
Johnny is soon blazing a path through downtown Melbourne, west along Little Collins Street at Russell Street, to the ‘City Train Yards’, where he confronts Blackheart and his three ‘elementals’ and finally explodes into his fiery alter ego. The yard is Newport Railway Workshops, Melbourne Road in Newport, a still-operational facility.
The original workshops, in which railway rolling stock has been built and maintained since the 1880s, have been maintained for the use of railway preservation groups and the storage of decommissioned engines, carriages and trams.
The workshops are not open to the public, but the Australian Railway Historical Society Railway Museum, Champion Road, is located just south, near to North Williamstown railway station.
Ghost Rider’s mission to turn the tables on wrongdoers with the ‘Penance Stare’ leads him to prevent a mugging on the Southbank Promenade beneath Princes Bridge, just south of Flinders Street Station, and send the criminal into his own private hell.
Confused, Johnny visits the grave of his father, and ends up meeting his mentor, the Caretaker (Sam Elliott), in the sprawling Melbourne General Cemetery, College Crescent, Parkville, north Melbourne.
Blackheart is meanwhile looking for the ‘Contract of San Venganza’ in the French-Gothic Revival St Mary Star of the Sea Catholic Church, 33 Howard Street at Victoria Street, in West Melbourne.
Chased by cops, Blaze rides up the arch of the Southbank Pedestrian Footbridge, which connects Southbank to Flinders Street station, before he plunges into the Yarra River. The Footbridge is yet another river crossing disfigured by a gazillion lovey-dovey padlocks, a charming tradition when limited to a single Parisian bridge, now a visual blight in cities worldwide.
Blaze learns he must head out to confront Blackheart at the deserted Mexican town of ‘San Venganza’ – ‘Saint Vengeance’, or more picturesquely, Spirit of Vengeance. Good title for a film?
The film finally springs to comic book life as Blaze and the Caretaker ride across a CGI desert to the strains of Ghost Riders In The Sky, for a final showdown at the cursed town. Don’t bother getting out the Hellcycle – the village was no more than a huge set built in a Melbourne warehouse.