Prisoners of the Ghostland is a collaboration between America’s most bonkers actor, Nicolas Cage, and Japanese auteur Sion Sono, known for grotesque violence, extreme eroticism, and surreal imagery. I’m not the biggest fan of Nic Cage’s recent reincarnation as a b-movie cartoon, but I thought this combination was made in movie heaven and couldn’t wait to check it out at the Sundance Film Festival.
But you know what? It wasn’t that great. It was okay, but I expected some pretty bananas action from these two knuckleheads and instead Cage seems to be playing it straight, giving us a film that’s far more conventional than I ever would have guessed. Had they embraced the subversive, unhinged kind of film I was expecting/hoping for, Prisoners of the Ghostland could have been an instant cult classic, instead I’m left feeling disappointed after having been promised “the wildest movie I’ve ever made” by Cage himself, which is patently untrue.
Cage plays Hero, a notorious bank robber who’s released from prison in the savage, post-apocalyptic frontier city of Samurai Town in order to rescue the wealthy warlord Governor’s granddaughter, Bernice. The Governor (Bill Moseley) will guarantee Hero’s freedom in exchange for Bernice’s swift return, but straps him into a leather suit programmed to self-destruct in just a few days as a little extra incentive. And while we’re at it, the suit is also loaded with explosives should Hero raise a hand against a woman, and more explosives in the crotch region should Hero pop a boner for Bernice (Sofia Boutella).
Hero does indeed find Bernice, by accident, and I do mean accident – he immediately crashes his car and is rescued by the people in Ghostland, where Bernice is being held. Ghostland is under some mysterious curse that prevents anyone from leaving and is guarded by the “survivors” of a prisoner transport bus crash who were turned into monsters thanks to radiation. The people of Ghostland are obsessed with time, and they’re not even the ones strapped into leather jumpsuits charged with deadly explosives. The town is peppered with crumbling mannequins that house prisoners inside them; Bernice is broken out of her shell but is still voiceless, and not much help against the curse, the cult, the gunslingers, the ghosts, the samurai, or the irradiated convicts.
Prisoners of the Ghostland isn’t a complete wash. There are some crazy-cool visuals, a western-spoof vibe, an interesting soundtrack, and plenty of dirty neon lighting up our Hero’s path. And there’s Chekhov’s gun, of course: if in the first act you have rigged a suit with ball-sac bombs, then in the following one they should explode. And indeed they do. But I wanted more than just scrotal thrills, I wanted a whole anatomy of weird and wonderful, I wanted a rainbow parade of the absurd, I wanted Nic Cage at his
best worst most demented, I wanted Cage and Sono to make a movie that would get banned in 17 countries and give me a nosebleed and an ice cream headache and leave me out of breath and intellectually bedazzled. Okay, that’s asking a lot, but I dared to dream big, and what I got was a strange, supernatural cinematic question mark that’s not half as nuts as anything else Cage has made in the last decade.