SUNDANCE 2021 PREMIERE – I never thought that I would see Nicolas Cage in a loincloth, but now I have really seen him do it all. Directed by Sion Sono (Suicide Club, Tokyo Tribe) in his first English-language film, Prisoners of the Ghostland (2021) seems to be a very collaboratory project, with signatures of Nicolas Cage seeping into Sono’s distinctive directorial style, such as the use of Elvis Presley in the soundtrack and the idea of shooting in Japan rather than America. This movie is aesthetically very busy, with Sono putting detail after detail of culture into this east/west mashup universe, and it is the kind of movie that one just has to go with and accept the leaps in logic because, in the end, Prisoners of the Ghostland is just a fun movie.
After participating in a bank robbery gone awry, Hero (Nicolas Cage) is imprisoned, spending his days haunted by a child his partner shot during the robbery. One day a wealthy gang boss named The Governor (Bill Moseley) lets him out of jail, promising Hero his freedom if he can bring back his granddaughter unharmed and unsoiled from the nightmarish, supernatural region of Ghostland that she has run away to. Outfitted with neural sensory connected bombs at various points on his body in order to be kept in line, Hero quickly retrieves the young woman, but the journey back is fraught with prophetic mysticism and brutal danger.
In a word, Prisoners of the Ghostland is energetic — but energetic is an understatement. Prisoners of the Ghostland, aesthetically, looked like some mix of Mad Max (1979) and The Wiz (1978), two of some of the weirdest movies ever, and Prisoners of the Ghostland belongs on that list right next to the other movies set in weird universes/worlds. The premise plays out something like Escape from New York (1981) with notes of Army of Darkness (1992) with Cage’s Hero character leading the Ghostlanders against the deadites, er I mean atomic diseased escaped convicts. At some point, I understood that I was not to take this movie too seriously and that it was knowingly being silly at times, which was somewhat of a disappointment because it seemed like a cop-out, but that definitely did not stop me from being entertained. For once, the production design and the extras were even crazier than Nicolas Cage himself. The cinematography is something special, displaying post-apocalyptic surrealism at its best and never letting a frame go by without taking advantage of some pop of color to keep the movie visually eye-catching.
However, even though I was entertained, the acting in this movie was rather forced, in my opinion, though that may have been the intention to be slightly over-the-top — they did hire Nicolas Cage, after all. I think I have a masochistic relationship with Nicolas Cage, I know there is always a very good chance that his movie is likely going to be bad, but I do it anyway because sometimes it is so bad it’s good. In the case of Prisoners of the Ghostland, though it did have some pretty memorable injuries, and the use of things like singing muses and trash-punk goblins every now and then certainly do make the movie unique, it didn’t have anything that charmed me, personally. I also did figure the movie would be gorier given the inevitable violence from a rescue/escape premise and the director being by infamous J-horror director Sion Sono, but there were still spurts here and there from the swords fights, which I was also expecting to be over-the-top but were rather short and uneventful for my liking.
Prisoners of the Ghostland is an exciting mix of east and west, specifically the American west with the use of cowboy attire and references to MAGA posters. A ramen-western rather than spaghetti, the movie might be best summarized as a cowboys vs. robbers vs. samurai romp that toggles back and forth between post-modern and old-era Japan — the cast is surprisingly diverse for being set in Japan. At some point, Cage’s character being on a quest in a somewhat zany and stylized world started to feel like Nicolas Cage in wonderland, except he was on a quest to reach a damsel instead of home. Sono handles Americanism with a similar frankness in paying homage to how Tarantino borrows from Japanese cinema — the movie was undoubtedly creative, but it didn’t necessarily feel experimental like something like Mandy (2018). Dare I say, Cage could have been weirder? It actually feels more like a “normal” and mainstream movie in comparison to Mandy, but if you want to see Nicolas Cage back in an action film being his awesomely cringeworthy self then Prisoners of the Ghostland is another one on the list of Nic Cage weirdness.
Prisoners of the Ghostland Premiered at the SUNDANCE 2021 Film Festival.
6 out of 10