A film review by Craig J. Koban September 27, 2021


2021, R, 103 mins.

Nicolas Cage as Hero /  Sofia Boutella as Bernice  /  Bill Moseley as Governor  /  Nick Cassavetes as Psycho  /  TAK∴ as Yasujiro  /  Yuzuka Nakaya as Susie  /  Young Dais as Ratman  /  Lorena Kotô as Stella  /  Canon Nawata as Nancy  /  Charles Glover as Enoch  /  Cici Zhou as Chimera  /  Louis Kurihara as Curi  /  Tetsu Watanabe as Nabe

Directed by Sion Sono  /  Written by Aaron Hendry and Reza Sixo Safai


Like, really weird.  

Like, Nicolas Cage journeying through a post apocalyptic wasteland while wearing a booby trapped outfit that can blast his nut sack off at the slightest moment of arousal...weird.  

Oh, and the wasteland in question contains a town set in a region of Japan that was quarantined from the world and has amalgamated samurai and wild west cultures in a freakishly outlandish hybrid.  

Yeah.  This is weird.  

This neo-noir Western comes from the twisted mind of Japanese director Sion Sono, known for being a button pushing provocateur in his native land (he's making his English language debut here).  The combination of Sono with a go-for-broke bonkers Cage set within an equally bizarre world should make for instant guilty pleasure cinema, and much of PRISONERS OF THE GHOSTLAND is as delightfully gonzo and hilariously macabre as it's described here.  Yet, it's also an impenetrably strange film that just might be a little too free-flowing and all over the place for its own good at times. 

The world building done by Sono here is quite respectful, and we're very quickly introduced to the aforementioned wasteland in question (known as Ghostland) that became a particularly nasty hellhole as a result of a toxic waste spill accident years before.  Of course, and in pure post-apocalyptic fashion, the Ghostland is inhabited by all sorts of irradiated and mostly crazy outcasts, scavengers, and marauders.  The one area that's as close to any type of reasonable society is Samurai Town, which is ruled over with a sadistic fist by The Governor (Bill Moseley), and in his own twisted vision for prosperity he blended samurai and western archetypes together.  Before the film settles into this world, though, we're introduced quickly to Cage's Hero (yes...his name is Hero...albeit ironically), who is a crook that tries to pull off a bank robbery in the opening of the film that takes place before everything went all MAD MAX.  Let's just say that the bank job goes badly after his partner maliciously murders many innocent bystanders, including kids.   

Part of Hero's punishment is being sent to Samurai Town, where he's given a golden opportunity (granted, with serious catches) by the Governor to clear his name and become a free man.  It appears that one of the Governor's "granddaughters" in Bernice (Sofia Boutella) has gone rouge and left Samurai Town to take her chances in Ghostland, and now he would like Hero to find and bring her back.  If he's successful, his criminal record is wiped clean.  Unfortunately for Hero, though, he's also equipped with a suit that's rigged with multiple explosive devices.  If he tries to take it off...BOOM...his head blows up.  If he touches Bernice...BOOM...his arms blow up.  If he's turned on while in her easy on the eyes presence...BOOM...his...ya know...blows up.  The suit can only be deactivated by a specific vocal command spoken by her, which further complicates things immensely.  Offered no real other choice, Hero partakes on his dangerous mission, and as he enters the wasteland and experiences all of its harshest realities he begins to realize the sheer merciless extremes of the Governor's rule while getting a finer understanding of why Bernice may not want to go back at all.   



PRISONERS OF THE GHOSTLAND is like a cake made up of so many divergent genre ingredients that - once baked and eaten - really has no business being as relatively tasty as it is.  I can see how some audience members might be overwhelmed with information overload in the opening sections of the film, seeing as there's so bloody much being thrust at us.  On a positive, PRISONERS OF THE GHOSTLAND doesn't waste time on laborious exposition and simply immerses viewers in its dreary world right from the get-go, and the East meets West civilization contained here is an inspired one on multiple levels (not too many movie towns can brag to contain both katana carrying assassins and six shooter gunslingers at the same time).  You can spot the cinematic influences from a mile away, to be sure, but it makes the process of watching the film feel genuinely inviting.  There's a lot of MAD MAX here alongside a pinch of ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK morphed with any number of western, gangster, and samurai pictures.  The villain in the film is equally memorable, as is his forced mission placed upon Hero's shoulders.  Under his kingdom are all sorts of lunatics and weirdos; there's even a master swordsman living under his thumb too, Yasujiro (Tak Sakaguchi), that you just know will be swinging his blade at multiple opponents at some point in this crazy story. 

It should be pointed out that PRISONERS OF THE GHOSTLAND never looks cheap and disposable like a piece of retrograde grindhouse fare.  Sono and his crackerjack production team use every single penny at their disposal to make their film look expensive while on the cheap.  The massive sets of Samurai Town and the areas of the Ghostland have a commendable scope and elaborate level of detail that shouldn't be overlooked.  There's one bombed out area of the wasteland that Hero visits that has its denizens worship a gigantic clock that's inventively daffy, not to mention that some of the imprisoned women there are covered from head to toe in cracked and unnerving mannequin pieces, creating a most unique visual set amidst this steampunk society.  This cultish city worships and chants at the clock and steadfastly tries to prevent it from moving forward in time...and this in no way is the most outlandish element in the film.   

Speaking of outlandish, let's not forget - how could we? - that Cage is front and center here, and I know that the Oscar winner has become an industry laughing stock for years in terms of the multiple B-grade, paycheck grabbing films that he has partaken in during the latter slumping sections of his career.  Every once in awhile, however, some snippets of greatness sneaks in from him, whether it be in his sensational freak out performances in MANDY and COLOR OUT OF SPACE or more understated work in this year's staggeringly good PIG.  Cage in PRISONERS OF THE GHOSTLAND perhaps occupies an odd middle ground between true histrionically unhinged theatrics and his more subdued mannerisms.  That's not to say that he's not given free reign here to fully embrace the limitless absurdity of what's handed to him, and watching the actor take on samurai (for example) makes for a pretty giddy ride.  He also has one moment - I won't spoil - that's so shocking in its violence and equally hilarious for his reaction to it that I wanted to pause my VOD screening of this film to rewind and rewatch it to make sure I actually saw what I did.  All in all, Cage is the absolute focal point of PRISONERS OF THE GHOSTLAND, and he rarely occupies a dull moment in it.  He might not be as explosively manic as I was expecting and hoping for, but he's still in his freakish wheelhouse. 

But why is a lot of the film built around Cage sort of...well...a tedious slog?  PRISONERS OF THE GHOSTLAND definitely suffers from pacing issues, and perhaps is about twenty or so minutes too long for its own good (at cruising towards nearly two hours, most viewers will probably find the film more exhausting to sit through than exhilaratingly offbeat).  Films of this ilk can't wear out their welcome at the risk of galvanizing us, and if you exclude the inspired art and production design, the remarkable visual tableau sprinkled in throughout, Cage's try anything chutzpah, and, yes, the unrelenting weirdness of it all...then...yeah...PRISONERS OF THE GHOSTLAND becomes somewhat taxing to sit through.  This is not assisted by a pretty meandering script that aimlessly goes from one setpiece to the next, oftentimes without much symmetry and flow.  I also thought that the usually capable Boutella (so good in THE KINGSMAN and ATOMIC BLONDE in purely physical roles) isn't given much to do with her underwritten role, even though she gives arguably the best performance in the film.  

Am I being too hard on PRISONERS OF THE GHOSTLAND?  I dunno.  Maybe.  It contains so much schitzo imagination and I usually find myself embracing films that tackle madness and mayhem in equal sensationalistic fashion.  But too much of PRISONERS OF GHOSTLAND touches cult film classic status and disappointingly falls short, and it somehow feels perplexingly incomplete...like a dry run attempt at the type of deliriously campy midnight movie that it wants to be.  

Thankfully, it does have a frenetic Nicolas Cage bellow out (at one key point) "You're grandpa sent me to get you...now it's time to fuckin' go home!"  

Amazing.  That's to be appreciated, don't you think?

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