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Review: Sion Sono and Nicolas Cage team for wildly bizarre ‘Prisoners of the Ghostland’

A man in leather strikes a martial arts pose as people look on
Nicolas Cage in the movie “Prisoners of the Ghostland.”
(Toshio Watanabe / RLJE Films)

The Times is committed to reviewing theatrical film releases during the COVID-19 pandemic. Because moviegoing carries risks during this time, we remind readers to follow health and safety guidelines as outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local health officials.

The prolific Japanese director Sion Sono has explored just about every genre imaginable over the last 20 years, including straightforward drama. But he’s probably best-known among international cinema buffs for his over-the-top cult films like “Why Don’t You Play in Hell?” and “Tokyo Tribe,” which ping-pong between action, horror, comedy and art, aiming to overwhelm audiences with pure sensation.

Sono’s first English-language film, “Prisoners of the Ghostland” (written by Aaron Hendry and Rexa Sixo Safai), stars Nicolas Cage, who likewise has had a career ranging from forgettable low-budget trash to Oscar-winning hits. Cage though is perhaps most famous for giving gonzo, over-the-top performances in collaboration with weirdo auteurs like Sono.

This dream-team pairing of two movie mavericks is, predictably, pretty wild. Cage plays a villain named Hero: an infamous crook captured by the Governor (Bill Moseley), the ruthless ruler of a sleazy town that’s part Old West outpost, part post-apocalyptic red-light district. The Governor encases his prize prisoner in a leather suit, rigged with escape-proof explosives, and orders him to trek into a no-go zone known as “Ghostland” to retrieve one of his fugitive geisha girls, Bernice (Sofia Boutella).

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The plot here is a bit of a mash-up of “Escape from New York,” “Mad Max,” and a dozen half-forgotten spaghetti westerns and samurai flicks. It’s primarily an excuse for Cage to experiment with offbeat line deliveries — his pronunciation of the word “testicle” in one pivotal moment is peak Cage — while Sono and his crew fill in the background with freaky-looking characters, costumes and sets.

Anyone expecting more from “Prisoners of the Ghostland” is bound to be disappointed. This is very much a “fans only” picture, aimed at anyone who enjoys spending time in the company of kooks like Cage and Sono. Even devotees of midnight movies may get a little worn out by the time this very slight story ends in yet another epic fight sequence, lit in garish neon.

That said, there is a theme of sorts here, related to the differences between the Governor’s technologically advanced, consumerist dystopia and the more mystical, handmade community of Ghostland — each of which is cruel and exploitative in its own way, and each of which needs to be liberated.

At its best though, the film eschews narrative and messaging entirely in favor of long tracking shots through surreal landscapes, sometimes populated by people dressed in suits made of old mannequin parts. “Prisoners of the Ghostland” is less a movie than an environment — not always hospitable but distinctly bizarre.

'Prisoners of the Ghostland'

In English and Japanese with subtitles

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes

Playing: Starts Sept. 17 in limited release; also available digital and VOD


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