FILM REVIEW: Prisoners of the Ghostland (2021)

Updated: Oct 18

Prisoners of the Ghostland - Now Streaming Review


Director: Sion Sono

Starring: Nicolas Cage, Sofia Boutella, Nick Cassavetes, Bill Moseley


Written by: Aaron Hendry, Reza Sixo Safa

Produced by: Nate Bolotin, Michael Mendelsohn, Ko Mori, Laura Rister, Reza Sixo Safai

Cinematography by: Sôhei Tanikawa

Original Score by: Joseph Trapanese


Synopsis:

A notorious criminal must break an evil curse in order to reduce an abducted girl who has mysteriously disappeared.




Thoughts:

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to see Nic Cage act like one of his testicles was blown off? Well wonder no longer. ‘Prisoners of the Ghostland’ is just one of those films that you have to see to believe.


“You’re...dead.”
“Burned in a nuclear hell like everybody else. D’ya ever do that? D’ya ever burn in fucking hell because your friend betrayed you?”
“You were always so much fun when ya had a couple of shots of whiskey in ya.”


A long time ago Nicolas Cage, a former box-office mega star and Best Actor Academy Award winner, decided that making big budget films with huge studio interference just wasn’t his cup of tea anymore. So he gave Hollywood the middle finger. For years he made straight-to-DVD action films (most of them were awful) but every so often he’d bang out a great performance in some low-key indie production. His name recognition fell dramatically and reports of crazy antics in his personal life were regularly doing the rounds in the media, until the media just stopped caring altogether. But Nic Cage has always had the acting chops, he’s just been doing what makes him happy and I think it’s fair to say that in ‘Prisoners of the Ghostland’ he might be the happiest he’s been in many years.


Cage plays The Hero (already a great start right?) an imprisoned bank robber who is released at the behest of The Governor, played outrageously by horror favourite Bill Moseley. Moseley is the main man of a fictional setting called Samurai Town, which he runs with both menacing authority and amiable self amusement. Donning a pristine white suit and equally eye-catching blood red leather gloves, Moseley’s pantomime-esque portrayal as The Governor sets the tone for the entire film as he recruits The Hero to find his granddaughter Bernice (Sofia Boutella), who, against his will, has managed to escape the confines of his strict regime. Moseley’s villain has a strange charm to him. His egomaniacal work here really plays well against Cage’s silent and contemplative Hero. It starts out as a fairly basic ‘falsely accused bad guy uses hopeless rescue mission to attempt to redeem himself’ premise then quickly turns into some bat-shit, supernatural absurdity after the Hero enters a realm called Ghostland. Full of eccentric characters and laden with a bizarre curse, Ghostland sort of resembles a small village now turned into a post-apocalyptic wasteland in which the inhabitants cannot leave because their borders are being blocked by the ghosts of violent convicts whose lives were consumed by nuclear waste in a prior accident. Time is forbidden to pass.


The leader of this army of deceased convicts is none other than Psycho, played by Nick Cassavetes, who was the (more sinister) partner of Hero during their bank robbing days. Initially Psycho is out for revenge because he believes Hero abandoned him during their partnership, but he eventually comes around due to his disdain for The Governor.


“We used to have so much fun didn’t we?”
“Yeah we did. But then you started...blowing up little kids.”

Oh I have forgotten one major detail here. The Hero is strapped into a leather suit with tiny explosives attached to his limbs and if he isn’t successful at his quest in the required time then he will have parts of his body blown off.


Personally I’m not overly familiar with director Sion Sono’s previous work although I am at least aware that he is a visionary filmmaker who is more of a fan of Western films than Japanese films. There are parallels to some of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’ more outlandish work going on here (which is never a bad thing) and maybe if their names were attached ‘Prisoners of the Ghostland’ might get more of a pass with casual film fans. This film will definitely be divisive and even during my viewing I was continuously swaying back and forth on my levels of enjoyment. It certainly won’t be for everyone and at times it will have you howling with laughter. We’re introduced to Cage in the beginning during a bank heist with him screaming “BANZAI” and later during a standoff in Samurai Town he yells “Karate chop. Hi fucking ya!” while attempting to dissuade an oncoming attack. Cage is 100% in on the joke here.



Both Ghostland and Samurai Town are gorgeous but very contrasting set-pieces. Ghostland is drowned in sepia tones, with a huge dilapidated clock face being held up by broken buildings. Samurai Town is a seamless mash-up of both Western and Eastern mythology. It looks like the bones of the set pieces have been stolen from an old John Ford film but dressed up in traditional Japanese colours and embellishments. The citizenry is also a varied pool of geisha girls and outlaws, samurai warriors and sheriffs. The action typically leans towards the Asian fighting style but there’s a few pistols and shotguns thrown in there too to balance it out.


Cinematically, it’s difficult to be too harsh. There are some sequences that are beautifully crafted but it’s really a task to take anything too seriously enough to care. The Hero is a bland character and while Cage plays him with an inner restlessness, there isn’t any other reason to cheer him on other than the fact that…it’s Nic Cage. In one scene he’s serious and battling the situation that he’s found himself in and then in the next he slips into this chaotic energy that doesn’t always correlate with the character. Despite the craziness there are occasions where the film tries to take a deep breath and there’s a few subplots and character moments that could’ve been eliminated entirely.


By the time the climax approaches and The Governor is loudly proclaiming “Love live the animal farm” nothing really makes sense and in many ways that’s what is so joyous about the film. Cage has long left the rules behind him and he seems to have found a kinship with Sono. He has called this “The wildest film I’ve ever made” and it’s hard to argue with that when we get deep into the third act and witness Cage wearing a damaged American football helmet with a katana attached to his heavily wounded right arm slicing up his enemies. Boutella is also fantastic during her fleeting fight scenes. She’s the only one of the main cast who isn’t hamming it up to eleven.



The musical score by Joseph Trapenese (Tron: Legacy, Oblivion) gives it a huge, operatic feel which definitely intensifies the big moments. Think ‘Mad Max’ meets ‘Return to Oz’ meets ‘Army of Darkness’ meets ‘Big Trouble In Little China’ with Nicolas Cage bringing his finest Nicolas Cageyness he could possibly bring. For better or worse ‘Prisoners of the Ghostland’ is an absolute must watch.


Verdict: ⭐⭐⭐


- Gavin Logan



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