Nov 16, 2021
By Stephen Danay
The Blu-ray cover for Sion Sono’s apocalyptic western-samurai mash-up boasts a pull-quote from no less than star Nicholas Cage; “The wildest movie I’ve ever made!” Putting this claim front and center is a clever – if somewhat cynical – ploy on Cage’s increasingly reflexive position as the wackiest actor in the game. It rings all the more false when you look at the ::checks Wikipedia:: twenty six films Cage has appeared in during the last five years alone and realize that Prisoners of the Ghostland wouldn’t even crack the top ten weirdest performances he’s given in that time.
The English language debut of director Sion Sono – the cult Japanese director behind films like Tokyo Tribe, Why Don’t You Go Play in Hell and Suicide Club – Prisoners of the Ghostland is one of those films that seems like it’s groping for cult status from its inception. What little there is in the way of plot plays like the result of a drunken mad-libs undertaken by a group of genre fans. In a vague, unspecified future, Samuraitown is an Old West-style town ruled by the tyrannical, white-clad Governor. When his adult granddaughter Bernice flees into the wasteland beyond the town’s borders – the titular Ghostland – the Governor’s gang presses a nameless outlaw into finding her and bringing her home.
In a gruesome riff on the failsafes that force Snake Plissken’s hand in the Escape films, Cage’s outlaw is fitted with a leather outfit armed with six explosives – two at his neck, one on each arm and one on each testicle – programmed to detonate if he harms Bernice or fails to return her to the Governor in five days time. Other obvious influences on the frequently terrific costume and set designs include the Mad Max films, the cracked-mirror fantasies of Terry Gilliam, and 19th century Japanese fashion. There are several flashes of inspired weirdness throughout the film; a group of Ghostland scavengers endlessly pulling on a rope tied to the second hand of a giant clock as though they’re attempting to stop history from continuing to get worse; a priestess whose spoken Japanese is converted to English by a chorus of translators, turning her every question and answer into an eerie collective prayer. But those few moments are lost amid a sea of nonsense plotting and frankly, disappointing violence. By the standards of gonzo Japanese genre flicks, Prisoners of the Ghostland barely merits an R rating, with uninspired fight choreography and some fairly obvious cutting around Cage’s stunt double. Even the presence of Tak Sakaguchi – star of the batshit Japanese classic Versus – as the Governor’s bodyguard feels wasted.
Next year, Nicholas Cage will star in The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, a film in which he plays himself being forced by a Mexican drug lord to revisit some of his more memorable performances. Perhaps it was inevitable that the meme-ification of Cage’s persona over the last decade would make its way into the actor’s actual films. But really, it feels like an unconscious effort by society to ignore the actual work and variety that Cage manages, even amid the deluge of direct-to-streaming crap he’s starred in over the last few years. Things aren’t weird and fun if you have to insist they’re weird and fun. Give me Vampire’s Kiss, Pig, Color Out of Space or even The Trust over that any day.