PRISONERS OF THE GHOSTLAND ½
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 NabeDirected by Sion Sono / Written by Aaron Hendry and Reza Sixo Safai
PRISONERS OF THE GHOSTLAND is weird.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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?