Prisoners of the Ghostland, 2021.
Directed by Sion Sono.
Starring Nicolas Cage, Sofia Boutella, Bill Moseley, Nick Cassavetes, Tak Sakaguchi, Yuzuka Nakaya, Young Dais, Lorena Kotô, Canon Nawata, Charles Glover, Cici Zhou, Louis Kurihara, Tetsu Watanabe, Takato Yonemoto, Shin Shimizu, Matthew Chozick, Ilsa, and Yurino.
A notorious criminal must break an evil curse in order to rescue an abducted girl who has mysteriously disappeared.
Much like Nicolas Cage has one of his testicles blown off in Prisoners of the Ghostland, the visually gonzo piece pops my cherry for director Sion Sono. Upfront, I will say the style of influences are there, as the production design combining Westerns and 12th-century Japanese culture (with seemingly more modern interior designs and neon-lit exteriors) is impressionable. It’s made up of equally nifty locations like an old west town run by a sordid and abusive governor with a stranglehold over the Japanese residents, forcing them into sexual servitude. Off in the distance, there is also a post-apocalyptic wasteland affected by a toxic disaster that transformed several convicts into freakishly scarred and burned mutants. Meanwhile, the regular civilians worship a doomsday clock while trying to get by, sometimes dressing up as creepy mannequins too, and that’s if I’m understanding this right, to stay hidden from literal ghosts and other enemies.
Again, it’s evident that plenty of creative madness went into the general concept for Prisoners of the Ghostland (also Sion Sono’s English-language filmmaking debut, using a script from Aaron Hendry and Reza Sixo Safai), which only makes it more baffling how uneventful and disengaging 90% of the movie feels. In hindsight, maybe I shouldn’t have spoiled Nicolas Cage losing half of his junk; it’s one of the rare moments something actually happens. Naturally, his reaction is priceless and sure to make the rounds in updated compilations of the legendary star melting down.
Nevertheless, Nicolas Cage, simply known as Hero, appears to be an intentional contradiction as Prisoners of the Ghostland starts with the beloved madman robbing a bank from the aforementioned Samurai Town with his towering and muscular partner dubbed Psycho (Nick Cassavettes). The act of crime does not go as planned, flashing forward sometime later to Hero locked up, leaving viewers to fill in a few predictable blanks. However, he is sprung from confinement by the governor (Bill Moseley looking like Colonel Sanders and chewing the scenery), who gives the task of treading into the dangerous titular Ghostland to bring back his runaway favorite sex slave (Sofia Boutella’s Bernice, strangely unable to speak for a majority of the running time but one of the only talents that come closest to conveying the insanity of the material as a believable human being).
The kicker is that Hero is forced to trade his sumo wrestler underwear for a leather one-piece equipped with bombs (specifically on the neck, shoulders, and testicles) designed to explode if he threatens to harm Bernice or goes against orders. By the end of the second day, Hero must have Bernice speak her name into a microphone so that the governor knows she is still alive. Otherwise, it’s once again bombs away. Between the botched bank robbery, a melting pot of cultures (with hopes it comes together for a desired thematic effect), simple rescue promise, and urgency of bombs outfitted to the protagonist, Prisoners of the Ghostland sets itself up for a journey of nonstop violence and action paying tribute to both Western and Japanese cinematic influences. For whatever reason, the narrative stops dead in its tracks, with exposition and world-building attempts caught up more in style than characterization. Yes, Nicolas Cage is given some goofy dialogue to shout alongside a ludicrous premise for an action movie, but Prisoners of the Ghostland becomes a prisoner to its own over-stylization.
There is also a mysterious right-hand samurai (Tak Sakaguchi) to the governor, biding his time before starting his own rebellion for personal reasons. It’s a subplot that eventually allows for brief satisfying swordplay, but much like Hero, he also has to wait until the final 20 minutes to start painting the walls red. None of this would be bad if the story itself weren’t derivative, dull, and disjointed. It’s always good to see Nicolas Cage combining his zaniness with legitimate character work, but 45 minutes into this one, it becomes apparent that no one has anything worthwhile to do, leaving one craving a rage-Cage performance. The solid technical aspects of the filmmaking are all that make Prisoners of the Ghostland tolerable throughout its languid pacing and listless story.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com