When not performing one of his death-defying stunts, like jumping over six Black Hawk helicopters with blades whirling, Johnny Blaze (Nicolas Cage) rides without a helmet. Riding without a helmet is dangerous, but cool and sexy. Figuratively speaking, Ghost Rider the movie rides with a helmet. In fact it rides on one of those trick motorcycles, hooked up to a trailer so that actors can ride safely and still look cool. Whatever financial forces finally allowed the Marvel Comics heroes to make the transition to celluloid these past few years has had a strange effect. Some of the heroes have been treated with respect and passion, such as in the first two Spider-Man movies and the first two X-Men movies. Others have been tossed off as if some kind of deadline loomed: make these movies now or lose them forever. Daredevil (2003) and The Fantastic Four (2005) had a slapdash feel with haphazard casting and a careless choice of directors.

Whatever convinced producers that the guy who made Barbershop (2002) would be a good choice for The Fantastic Four? Or worse, that the guy who made Simon Birch (1998) could make Daredevil, and that even after Daredevil stunk up the joint that he could be trusted with Ghost Rider? Mark Steven Johnson may have learned something from those previous duds, because Ghost Rider is cleaner and lighter, and doesn't feel as if it's desperately striving for a coolness factor. It almost succumbs to its silliness. As a teenager, Blaze (Matt Long) is about to run off with his sweetheart, Roxanne Simpson (Raquel Alessi), when he finds out that his father has cancer. He makes a deal with the devil, or if you prefer, Mephistopheles (Peter Fonda), to save his father's life. But the deal also causes him to lose Roxanne.

Years later, the grown-up Blaze is an Evel Knievel-like star, and Roxanne (Eva Mendes) is a TV reporter who turns up to interview him. At the same time, his contract comes due and Mephistopheles turns Blaze into the Ghost Rider, with the purpose of killing a bad guy, Blackheart (Wes Bentley), before he can get his hands on a MacGuffin, a contract with a thousand souls in it. (It reminded me of a similar MacGuffin used in Brian De Palma's Mission: Impossible, the "NOC list.") Unfortunately, Blaze's new troubles interfere terribly with his dating life. Sam Elliot co-stars as a caretaker at a graveyard, who for some mysterious reason, knows all about the Ghost Rider phenomenon and lends a hand.

I've known many comic book nerds over the years and I have yet to run into anyone who has read "Ghost Rider," but Cage says he was a fan, and plays his role like one. He acts against a green screen for about half the running time, and though he appears lost -- howling in pain or twirling imaginary chains -- he still gives it a decent shot. It looks as if he added a few Cage-like touches to the character, such as having Blaze listen to the Carpenters before a stunt, or eating only red and white jellybeans. Mendes has even less to do, but her natural warmth adds a grin to her role. Donal Logue also appears as Blaze's manager/assistant/roadie, and he gets in a few good line deliveries: "We were riding the gravy train with biscuit wheels before you came along."

But though the film may feel effortless, by the same token it also feels as if it's not trying at all. Every plot turn is slavishly predictable, and certain lines of dialogue telegraph themselves. The CG effects are all too obvious and cheap-looking, especially the ghost head; how hard would it have been for some old-time effects guys to cook up a realistic flaming skull? Worst of all, Bentley plays his villain role with that same, one-dimensional strutting and preening that so many movie villains have; I last saw it in Blood and Chocolate, but it's everywhere. This guy is pure evil, the movie suggests, but where's the humanity or the seduction in that?

The general impression is that the producers decided that they needn't bother with anything realistic, artistic, or emotional. After all, "it's only a comic book." Comic books still provoke that kind of attitude in people, despite such spectacular achievements as A Contract with God, Maus, Watchmen, Ghost World, Understanding Comics, the books by Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez and many others. When Tim Burton made his Batman in 1989, he knew he'd have to live up to the new standard set by Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns. Likewise Sam Raimi with Todd McFarlane's "Venom" series in "Spider-Man."

That antagonism resulted in an artistic supercharge and turned out some good movies. With Ghost Rider, the filmmakers apparently had no idea who the fans were (except Cage), and didn't care. It was very simply the next title on the list. We still have Iron Man coming and perhaps Thor, The Avengers, Power Man, Doctor Strange or a few others untapped as of yet. Let's hope the future filmmakers involved in those projects remember to ride free and helmet-less.