Director: Sion Sono | 1h 43mins | Action, Fantasy, Adventure | Languages: English, Japanese
After a botched bank robbery lands a mysterious outlaw in jail (Nicolas Cage), he’s forced to venture into a cursed land to find a young woman (Sofia Boutella) and bring her back within 5 days.
Sion Sono’s newest fantasy action thriller boasts the promising combination of the director’s barbaric imagination and Nicolas Cage’s wild tendencies as a performer. While both sides deliver on that promise, the unholy mess it creates is less of a combination but rather both aspects working at their rock bottom. A cross-culture concept that features gunslingers and samurai battling it out, a ‘ghostland’ with a terrible curse and at the centre Nicolas Cage with bombs attached to his testicles. All things that sound entertaining but never live up to their promise leaving the film as an offtone mess, one that is not only jarring but incredibly uninteresting.
Cage plays ‘The Hero’, a bank robber who sits in the jail of ‘Samurai Town’ until he’s offered a lifeline by ‘The Governor’. The Governor, played by Bill Moseley, is dressed in all white and dons a vague Southern accent – very archetypal in his villainy. He feels very much like a Tarantino afterthought, all style without an increment of depth to him and to be honest it’s a theme that runs through the entire film. The bright and bonkers setting is a strange mashup of Japanese history and American, the delivery of lines feel stale and overacted and the stylistic choices that Sono opts for feel like very hollow imitations of things we’ve seen before.
Although the director has always survived from a cult-audience, dancing on lines of controversy and wildly embracing the B-Movie style, he’s always managed to find some discussion under the surface of his films. Cold Fish (2010) was a brutal mediation on how far the human spirit can be pushed and Love Exposure (2008) satirically dives into a number of subjects in it’s 4 hour run time. The big difference in Prisoners of the Ghostland is that it can’t quite grip onto anything tangible – unable to find any kind of humanity in it’s barbarity and leaning far too heavily into the B-Movie style.
At the centre of the chaos is Nicolas Cage, an actor who this year reminded everyone just how good he can be with his performance in Pig (2021). But, as the ‘The Hero’ he unfortunately falls back into the realm of weird and not so wonderful. In the ongoing conversation on whether or not he is a good actor I am of the opinion that, like a lot of performers, he is simply good in good films and bad in bad films, something that is made abundantly clear in Prisoners of the Ghostland. His tonal shifts from bizarre screaming to stoic warrior are made all the more obvious because of the film’s inability to find personality – something that’s comparable to another Cage film from this year, Willy’s Wonderland (2021).
Joining Cage is his co-star Sofia Boutella who plays Bernice, the granddaughter of the Governor who tries to find a life outside of being one of his gabbling group of Geishas. Boutella is by far the strongest aspect of the film, trying her best to sell every blunt line of appalling dialogue and being able to find some emotionality in her character, but unfortunately she looks lost in a film that seems to have no interest in finding any kind of emotional core to it’s story.
Fans of these bizarre B-Movie’s driven by Cage’s strange presence will find something to rejoice in with Prisoners of the Ghostland, but it’s chaotic mess of conflicting ideas and tectonic tonal shifts make this film an unbelievably dull affair. You can laugh at Cage’s delivery of line “testicles” and find some popcorn entertainment in the offtone setting, but it’s over reliance on the strange and supernatural parts of it’s story leave you completely unaffected by anything the film is trying.