Dir/scr: Mark Steven Johnson. US. 2007. 108mins.

Another lesser-known Marvel superhero gets his big-screen break in Ghost Rider, a silly but serviceable comic book adaptation with Nicolas Cage starring for Daredevil writer-director Mark Steven Johnson. The Columbia/Crystal Sky project could work well as a stopgap for those hardcore comic fans yearning for this May's big Marvel offering, Spider-Man 3. It may not have much traction with mainstream audiences, though, at least not until it rolls into video stores.

Columbia opened the film on 3,619 North American screens on Friday (Feb 16), as one of five new wide releases vying for box office dollars over the President's Day holiday weekend. A sizeable opening should give Ghost Rider a chance of matching the eventual $102.5m domestic gross of Daredevil, the Marvel adaptation that opened on the same weekend four years ago.

Like Daredevil, which took $76.6m outside the US, Ghost Rider may prove less of a draw internationally. To make the most of its potential, Sony Pictures Releasing International is opening the film this weekend in Australia, Mexico, Spain, Russia and a number of smaller markets. Most other territories will get their turns in the next few weeks.

Judging by his movie incarnation, Ghost Rider (who has had comic-book runs in the 1940s, the 1970s and the 1990s) is a something of an identikit hero. His human form is Johnny Blaze, a motorbike stunt rider who, in an attempt to save his father's life, makes a pact with the Devil (Fonda).

Years later, the Devil reappears to enforce the deal and Johnny starts experiencing nocturnal transformations into Ghost Rider, a flaming, skeleton biker who's supposed to be Satan's bounty hunter but actually spends his time righting wrongs and protecting the innocent.

Like many superheroes, this one changes when he gets angry, struggles to control his powers and has a hell of a time explaining it all to his would-be girlfriend.

Johnson's script surrounds Johnny with an overabundance of other characters that serve to make the flimsy storyline more confusing than it needs to be. Besides love interest Roxanne (Mendes, from 2 Fast, 2 Furious), there's the Devil himself, his son (Bentley), his son's grungy hench-demons, a crotchety superhero mentor (Elliott) and a clueless best pal (Logue).

Scenes of Satanic shape-shifting and mayhem-making alternate with episodes painting a humorous portrait of Johnny and his efforts to adapt to his new role in life.

Cage acquits himself pretty well in a role that might have gone to a younger actor, and he gives the character a pleasant quirkiness - Johnny chills out between death-defying stunts by listening to The Carpenters and chomping on jellybeans - that offsets the all the daft demonic lore. The other performers, however, strain to make something out of the script's wooden dialogue and dramatic inertia.

Shot at Australia's Central City Studios in Melbourne, the film has a relatively limited special effects palette, sticking mostly to demon shape shifting and lots and lots of flames (Ghost Rider's bike is constantly blazing, and its sets off fires in whatever it rides past or on).

The Rider himself has an imposing physical presence - enhanced by his be-spiked black leather costume - but in close-ups he's a letdown. Too often, the flaming skull looks more like a medical school prank than the face of Satan's bounty hunter.

Production companies/backers
Columbia Pictures
Crystal Sky Pictures
Marvel Studios

US distribution
Columbia Pictures

International distribution
Sony Pictures Releasing International

Avi Arad
Steven Paul
Michael De Luca
Gary Foster

Executive producers
E Bennett Walsh
Stan Lee
Norm Golightly
David S Goyer
Lynwood Spinks

Russell Boyd

Production design
Kirk M Petruccelli

Richard Francis-Bruce

Christopher Young

Main cast
Nicolas Cage
Eva Mendes
Wes Bentley
Sam Elliott
Donal Logue
Matt Long
Peter Fonda