Sion Sono’s latest film “Prisoners of the Ghostland” looks like an ideal combination between two different figures who have respectively been known well for going wild and crazy in each own way. While Sono has surely impressed us with a number of loony and disturbing works such as “Cold Fish” (2010) and “Why Don’t You Play in Hell?” (2013), his leading actor Nicholas Cage has been quite bold and fearless regardless of whether his movies are good or bad, and I and others surely expected a lot from their collaboration.
However, sadly, “Prisoners of the Ghostland” turns out to be not as wild and explosive as we can hope from Sono and Cage. While they and the other cast and crew members around them are surely willing to go wild right from the start, the movie is often hampered by its uneven storytelling and weak characterization, and we are just mildly amused at times by its deliberately whimsical exaggeration of style and mood.
The movie is set in a bluntly anachronistic world located somewhere in Japan, and it promptly thrusts us into this crazy strange world where old and modern elements of the Japanese society are casually mixed along with some element from the Old American West. While there are a bunch of geishas and samurais on one hand, there are also a group of gunslingers on the other hand, and they are all ruled by a sleazy American dude who is simply called “The Governor” (Bill Moseley). When one of his “granddaughters” manages to escape at one night, the Governor is not so pleased at all, and he is already determined to get her back by any means necessary.
And he happens to have the right guy for that. That person, played by Cage, has been incarcerated for many years due to a bank robbery, which was gone horribly gone wrong for him and his accomplice as shown to us during the opening part of the film. When the Governor promises freedom to him in exchange of getting that woman back to the Governor, our nameless hero is not so eager to say the least, but, alas, he soon finds that he has no choice once the Governor has him wear a special suit which will probably take you back to the similar setting of John Carpenter’s “Escape from New York” (1981).
Even at that point, the movie does not hesitate to baffle and strike us, and we are accordingly served with small and big loony moments. While I like the striking color scheme of the bank robbery scene, I also enjoy several surrealistic moments including the sudden appearance of a rather catchy song, and Cage, who looks as straight as possible in front of all these and other crazy elements in the film, contributes extra silliness to the movie when his character decides to use a far plainer vehicle than a fancy sports car given to him for accomplishing the mission out there.
After our hero leaves for a wasteland area where that woman, who is named Bernice (Soifa Boutella), ran away, the movie becomes more decidedly unrealistic as building up another stranger world around our hero. As explained to us later in the story, there was a disastrous accident involved with the radioactive waste from some nuclear power plant, and its victims were turned into a sort of radioactive ghosts who have isolated that area from the outside world. While she succeeded in getting away from the Governor, Bernice is now trapped in this wasteland region along with many of its gloomy denizens, and the movie has some naughty fun with how these people are miserably coping with their hopeless status which may continue forever till their death. At one point, we see a bunch of them struggling to stop a big clock from working second by second, and that is certainly an amusing sight for us even though we cannot totally understand what is really the point of this Sisyphean work.
While continuing to do these and many other stuffs around here and there, the movie unfortunately comes to lose its narrative focus and momentum, and we become more aware of the contrived aspects of its story and characters. Although Cage tries his best, his character remains rather flat and bland in my humble opinion, and the movie does not even give him enough chances to go as wild and crazy as we can expect from him. Yes, I actually chuckled a bit as watching a little gory moment involved with his character’s certain body part, but the movie does not go further than that to my disappointment, and it merely comes to spin its wheels as monotonously mired in its excessive exercise in style.
In case of the other main cast members in the film, most of them are wasted in their cardboard roles. Sofia Boutella brings some spirit and personality to her superficial role, but the movie under-utilizes her to my disappointment, and the movie actually made me miss when she mercilessly wielded a pair of blades in “Kingsmen: the Secret Service” (2015). In case of Bill Moseley and Nick Cassavetes, they are as hammy as required by their caricature characters, and Tak Sakaguchi and Yuzuka Nakaya manage to leave some impression as two crucial Japanese characters in the story.
Although it is at least less boring than Sono’s previous film “The Forest of Love” (2019), “Prisoners of the Ghostland” is still a misfire which fails to be as entertaining as it could be, and my dissatisfaction with its overall result still lingers on me even at this point. The movie is as distinctive as Sono’s other works, but I would rather recommend you to watch “Why Don’t You Play in Hell?” instead, and I also want to point out that Cage was more entertainingly wild in “Mandy” (2018). Believe me, you will have a more satisfying time with either of these two better films.