I’ll be honest, I knew little to nothing about Sion Sono’s career before watching Prisoners of the Ghostland. I had no idea about the director’s reputation nor what to expect when sitting down to a Sion Sono film. And while I could make my own assumptions given the casting of Nicolas Cage as the lead and the one promotional image for the film involved him holding up two guns with a face frozen in a yell, I had no real idea what I was getting myself into for 103 minutes until I started watching Prisoners of the Ghostland.
For the uninitiated, walking into Prisoners of the Ghostland will be like getting on a roller coaster blindfolded. Although the cast and the script are primarily in English, this will not be a movie that will be beloved by the masses. However, there is something universally enjoyable about the combination of Sono and Cage. The film is an odd cocktail of Mad Max meets Suicide Squad meets a spaghetti Western meets getting high in Japan. At some points the plot is basically incomprehensible, the worldbuilding is weak, at best, but honestly, the craziness of Cage’s performance is a constant propelling force.
Roughly, Prisoners of the Ghostland is about a criminal played by Cage, only known as Hero, who is forced by the governor (Bill Moseley) of a nameless town to rescue his granddaughter Bernice (Sofia Boutella). The film is set in a weird post-apocalyptic world, half-samurai half-western aesthetic, with about a thousand random background characters who likely have detailed backstories somewhere.
The audience has some idea that The Governor is not completely above board. Bernice has escaped in the dead of night alongside two other women, and The Governor is the epitome of shady. He clamps down explosives around Hero’s neck, arms, and each of his balls. There is a whole subplot involving Nic Cage’s testicles in this one that induced actual tear-filled laughter from me, I won’t spoil it but it does involve Cage yelling the word testicle at the top of his lungs. If Hero has any untoward thoughts about Bernice, kaboom.
It’s hard to go into everything that happens in Prisoners of Ghostland. Even if I were to dedicate this review to a play-by-play, it would likely take up far too much time and likely be as incomprehensible as the actual film. Does that mean that I don’t recommend this film? No. There are actually quite a few redeeming factors when it comes to Ghostland. Cage is at a high level of crazy in this flick, not Mandy-level but close, which is a good thing. Tak Sakaguchi’s storyline as Yasujiro, the tortured samurai hero fighting on behalf of the villain is actually quite stirring, even if his motivation is revealed at the literal eleventh hour of the story. And there’s something mesmerizing about Sono’s direction. It’s colorful and violent and uninhibited. It feels like a fever dream.
The downsides come with Aaron Hendry and Reza Sixo Safai’s script. It’s not nearly as strong as Sono’s vision. Boutella is severely underutilized and Moseley’s Governor is basically a cardboard cut-out villain. The odd characters of the Ghostland basically make no sense. I had absolutely no idea what some of their motivations were other than a group need to stop the clock from moving forward. While the main story is clear, the rest is a bit of a jumbled mess.
But still, Prisoners of the Ghostland has the potential to be a cult classic if only because of the weird magic that Cage and Sono have created together. It’s far from perfect, but there are a couple of one-liners that deserve a place in a hall of fame. With a distributor already locked down from RLJE Films, I’d recommend any fans of Cage to check this one out. At the very least, it’s a fun night.