[Ed. note: This review was first published in conjunction with Prisoners of Ghostland’s release at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. It has been updated for the film’s theatrical release.]
Logline: When Bernice (Sofia Boutella) goes missing in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, her wealthy, well-connected adoptive grandpa springs a bank robber (Nicolas Cage) from jail, straps him in a leather suit outfitted with bombs, and gives him five days to retrieve her — or suffer explosive consequences.
Longerline: Japanese filmmaker Sion Sono has made a career out of extremism. Films like the four-hour sex-and-religion romp Love Exposure and the street-gang musical Tokyo Tribe are the daydreams of a cinematic madman. Pairing him with Cage doesn’t just seem like a good idea, it sounds like cosmic law. These two Chaotic Good titans had to make a movie together before they called it quits.
Going too deep on the plot of Prisoners of the Ghostland is not so much a spoiler issue as a futile attempt to describe a genre mash-up with hedonistic impulses, but here’s a taste anyway: After a botched bank robbery spills innocent blood, “Hero” (Cage) and his bulky accomplice (Nick Cassavetes) get locked up in the dungeons of Samurai Town. In the East-meets-West alcove, samurai roam the streets and a Kentucky Fried gentlemen named The Governor (Bill Moseley) rules like a mob boss. The Governor recruits Hero as his own one-man Suicide Squad to retrieve Bernice from the post-apocalyptic dead zone beyond the walls. To ensure the criminal doesn’t get too handsy, the mafioso locks Hero into what is fair to call Chekov’s Limb-Splodin’ Leather Suit. If anything goes wrong with the mission, it’s bye-bye precious body parts. There are even two tiny bombs situated on Hero’s testicles. No spoilers, but Sono doesn’t let that ball hang in the air for long.
What follows is basically Nic Cage’s Mad Max: Fury Road. The “Ghostland” of the title is an irradiated zone with its fair share of infected citizens looking for a better life, and zombie-esque creepsters for Cage to plow through. When Hero connects with Bernice, the two unravel the mysteries behind How Things Got This Way, and why some desert cultists scream “THE PROPHECY!” and “THICK RED BLOOD!” Throughout the journey, Hero recalls the traumatic moments of the robbery-gone-wrong, and works through the wrongs of his past to find something resembling redemption. He also fights a bunch of ninjas.
What’s Prisoners of the Ghostland trying to do? Strike the bombast of Hollywood blockbusters against the bombast of Japanese action cinema to see what catches fire. From the exaltation of a motorcycle-riding Cage as the pinnacle of cool (someone off-screen literally says “He’s … so cool”) to the near-lampooning of Kurosawa tropes, Sono has a globe-trotting taste and zero restraint in putting every stray idea on screen. Unexpectedly, though, it’s one of the director’s more mainstream efforts. What could easily devolve into a Crank-like exercise in hyperactivity is conducted with a steady hand and an appreciation for the details. Sono wants his audience to luxuriate in the brutal beauty of Boutella wielding a gatling gun.
In his notes for the film, Sono says that while Prisoners of the Ghostland puts a love of pop entertainment on the screen, “What I really wanted to create behind all that is distortions of the modern society making real of the unreal world. I believe we are living in an irrational world.” Hard to disagree, although the movie doesn’t devote much time to considering those distortions. Yes, Ghostland is the byproduct of a toxic spill, and its inhabitants, good and bad, are suffering. But the potential social or eco-commentary never surfaces. Instead, what we see is what we get: The “ghosts” are literal, the radiation timeline is mythology, and the decimated world is fertile ground for Hero’s Journey prophecies about Cage being the “most powerful clock” or something. Sono seems to have challenged himself to make the most entertaining movie of all time.
The quote that says it all: [Extreme Nic Cage acting voice] “I AM RADIOACTIVE.”
Does it get there? Prisoners of the Ghostland is primed for the packed-house, few-drinks-in midnight-movie slot. Presented in the less-than-ideal at-home venue, by nature of virtual Sundance, it’s a delightful love letter to action-movie excess. Like The Wachowskis’ Jupiter Ascending or, more literally, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Sono embraces cartoon nonsense logic in order to whisk Cage to each of the film’s unexpected mile markers. The Governor is American, so obviously he strolls out in all whites and a cowboy hat. The samurai warriors might as well be RPG NPCs engaging in a sword battle set to Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle.” A sequence depicting the accident that melted the countryside into a decaying shade of its former self flips across the screen like the pages of a manga. A star who has perfected the mouth-agape, raised-eyebrow “Wut?” face is the glue that keeps all the pieces stuck to the collage.
But let’s not underestimate Cage. He rises to Sono’s level. Sporting strange sprayed-on Ken-doll makeup and Lee Marvin killer energy, Cage becomes a living action figure. He even has kung-fu grip! In a third-act sequence, Cage (or at least a spot-on body double in armor) goes toe-to-toe with the head samurai, delivering moves that keep up with the kinetic camerawork. If only Sono had found more for Boutella to do, Prisoners of the Ghostland might have achieved instant cult status. With action credits like Kingsman, Atomic Blonde, and Star Trek Beyond to her name, she’s more than capable of executing stunts and choreography. Sono loses her in Cage’s shadow, but again, she can really make that gatling gun sing.
Much like Sono’s previous films, Prisoners of the Ghostland is eye-catching. The costumes, ranging from radiation fallout gear to the lavish traditional robes, tell as much story as any expositional dialogue. The sets, while occasionally looking like soundstage stand-ups, continue the director’s aggressive dadaist approach. One minute Sono brings viewers to the Tokyo-inspired streets of Samurai Town, then seconds later, we’re in Ghostland, a junkyard built by way of Hook. It’s overflowing with oddities.
What does that get us? A great reminder that whirlwind action movies don’t need to cost $200 million. Sono’s output may never catch on like Japan’s anime exports or Korean auteurs like Bong Joon-ho, but for anyone worn thin by the homogeny of American superhero cinema, there’s an entire back catalogue waiting for you. Prisoners of the Ghostland is a great, digestible start.
And a note about Cage: After running into some financial troubles in the 2010s, there’s been suspicion that the former A-lister will sign on to any script that crosses his desk. Okay, yes, there are stinkers in his filmography to support the theory, but Cage, unlike Bruce Willis and his current DGAF-on-DTV career, shows up for every damn movie he’s in. He seems to find lifeblood in the odd and extreme. Sono is on the same quest. There’s no wink-wink cynicism to casting Cage in this role. He’s a BIG movie star without BIG movies to star in. Prisoners of the Ghostland demands his style.
The most meme-able moment: I really want to talk about what happens with the testicle bomb goes off but just watch it.