Prisoners of the Ghostland, 2021.
Directed by Sion Sono.
Starring Nicolas Cage, Sofia Boutella, Nick Cassavetes, Bill Moseley, Tak Sakaguchi, and Yuzuka Nakaya.
A notorious criminal must break an evil curse in order to rescue an abducted girl who has mysteriously disappeared.
The long-awaited pairing of Nicolas Cage and filmmaker Sion Sono has naturally invited stratospheric expectations from their respective fanbases, aided by Cage recently dubbing their collaboration the “wildest” movie he’s ever made.
And while Prisoners of the Ghostland doesn’t quite one-up the actor’s current gonzo standard-bearer Mandy, its shoot-for-the-moon enthusiasm and energetic collision of genres ensures it mostly delivers on its full-throttle promises.
“Banzai! Get your hands up!” is the first thing screamed by Cage’s protagonist, known only as Hero, as he and his pal Psycho (Nick Cassavetes) rob a bank in the film’s opening scene. Some time following the botched, bloody robbery, Hero finds himself imprisoned in the burgeoning frontier city of Samurai Town, where he’s freed from jail at the behest of the powerful Governor (Bill Moseley).
Freedom comes with a price, though; Hero must venture into the irradiated hellhole known as the Ghostland and retrieve the Governor’s adopted granddaughter Bernice (Sofia Boutella), who is being held prisoner there.
There’s another catch, too; Hero is kitted out in a leather jumpsuit to which a series of explosives are strategically attached to the limbs, balls, and neck. The bombs will detonate on a number of conditions; if he strikes Bernice, attempts to have sex with her, or fails to register her voice on an in-built microphone within three days.
Prisoners of the Ghostland is certainly a project that could’ve gone horribly wrong, being Sono’s first film in the English language and shot shortly after the director suffered a heart attack during pre-production. But neither the language barrier nor Sono’s health issues have in any way watered down a vision which commits fully to the noodle-baking metaphysical nonsense its premise suggests.
Cage and Sono’s artistic sensibilities are a match made in heaven, and Sono wastes little time getting weird with it. Kitting Cage out in a sumo loincloth as he’s paraded through the streets of Samurai Town in an establishing scene, one suspects Sono simply wanted to see what he could get Cage to play along with. The answer, thankfully, is a lot.
Once Hero is suited up he journeys to the Ghostland, but ends up crashing his car after encountering a spectral vision on the road, leaving him to be scooped up by a delightful weirdo called “Ratman,” who ambles around the Ghostland with his “Ratclan.”
As Hero is dragged through a Ghostland settlement filled with people covered in mannequin parts, he learns that the ghosts terrorising the area feed off fear, and take something from everyone who is held prisoner in the area. This naturally becomes a problem for Hero given that Bernice has lost her voice, the very thing Hero needs to complete his journey with his limbs in tact.
It’s not a spoiler to say that this community falls to Hero to help them break the region’s curse. Thematically and stylistically it’s clearly indebted to the Mad Max formula, but Mad Max never delivered an exposition dump with a slideshow of gorgeous paintings, did it?
It’s worth mentioning that anyone hoping for a non-stop action-fest should be warned that Sono’s film is anything but that; the throwdowns here are mostly modest compared to, say, the chainsaw fight mayhem of Mandy, only truly committing to sustained blood-letting in the brief-but-mental finale. Then again, Sono may be going for quality over quantity, as this is surely the only film in history to feature a slick samurai swordfight set to Jim Croce’s melancholy banger “Time in a Bottle.”
Sono seems far more enthusiastic about world-building and aesthetic design, both of which are terrific throughout. Beyond the generally eye-popping colour palette, the sharp production design makes both Samurai Town and the Ghostland feel like tangible, lived-in locales – especially compared to most of Cage’s recent STV action flicks. The Ghostland in particular feels brilliantly otherly; the sight of a fleet of men locked in a tug-of-war with a giant clock – the corruption of the Ghostland preventing the minute hand, and literally time itself, from ticking onward – wouldn’t look amiss in a Terry Gilliam film.
A crackerjack score from the brilliant Joseph Trapanese perfectly encapsulates the film’s clear genre influences, running the gamut from Carpenter-style synths to a Morricone-esque spaghetti western fanfare, sweeping strings, and even epic brass. The result is one of the most diverse and endearingly jarring scores I’ve heard in quite a while.
Yet for many the prime appeal won’t be the style, story, or even the action, but the leading man. Though Cage’s long-gestating John Carpenter collaboration Rage sadly never came to pass, the Internet’s favourite actor has basically ended up making a Carpenter movie here anyway, his Hero braced between Escape from New York’s Snake Plissken and Mad Max’s, well, Max. If at first subdued, Cage’s bug-eyed mode soon enough emerges, culminating in a glorious mid-film rant where the actor makes a screaming line reading of “Testicle!” with all the conviction of a thesp aspiring to Shakespeare.
Yet Cage is perhaps almost outdone by Bill Moseley’s deliciously hammy turn as The Governor. “I have a fondness for black leather,” he knowingly tells us and Hero moments before tossing Hero the bomb-strapped leather jumpsuit, the first of several amusing and memorable scenes in which Moseley takes bites out of that gorgeously produced scenery. Imagine a snarling, rail-thin Colonel Sanders – white suit and all – and you’re basically there.
Boutella is also a lot of fun in a role that could so easily have relegated her to a helpless damsel, but knowing Boutella’s background in dance, Sono handily puts this to use in the film’s climax, giving her a delineated aside of majorly acrobatic ass-kicking. Tak Sagaguchi similarly gets a few badass moments to shine as one of the Governor’s disgruntled, unwilling samurai goons, even if as a character he’s basically a cardboard cutout.
If a little more restrained on the gore and action front than some may be hoping for, Sono’s film invests far more effort in building a credible – albeit shamelessly weird – world than you might reasonably expect, filling it with enticing oddballs at the same time.
The unruly bastard child of Kurosawa, Leone, Carpenter, and Mad Max, Prisoners of the Ghostland delivers enough face-melting carnage to satisfy fans of both Nicolas Cage and Sion Sono. It’s no Mandy, but what is?
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.