This review of Prisoners of the Ghostland is part of our coverage of the 2021 Fantasia Film Festival.
The English language debut by Sion Sono starring Nicolas Cage in a black leather suit set to explode in five days. Yeah, that’s the kind of tease that marks Prisoners of the Ghostland as a must-see film, but does the actual movie deliver on that promise? Well, that’s a great question, and the answer depends almost entirely on your interest in seeing Cage unleashed even as Sono is restrained.
A young woman named Bernice (Sofia Boutella) has gone missing in the fabled ghostland, and her guardian wants her back. The Governor (Bill Moseley, clearly having a blast) oversees just about everything — it’s a bit unclear as to just where his authority starts and ends — but he knows only one man can enter the wasteland and bring Bernice home. That hero is Hero (Cage), a convict a few years into a sentence for a bank robbery gone wrong, and the Governor offers him his freedom in exchange for accomplishing this mission. The Governor’s no fool, of course, so he dresses Hero in a styling leather jumpsuit complete with explosive charges in sensitive areas. Some will trigger if Hero tries to hit a defenseless woman (?), others if he gets too horny (?), and the whole thing will ignite if he’s not back in five days.
Obvious inspirations for Prisoners of the Ghostland run the gamut from John Carpenter’s Escape from New York to George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road, but Sono ends those comparisons with his setup as he’s clearly uninterested (and financially incapable) of aping them further. Instead, the film settles for being an odd adventure that’s at times a rollicking good time when it’s not busy being surprisingly dull. The visuals and the cast wind up the real heroes here as the film winds up being a mid-range Sono with parts greater than the whole.
The plot, such as it is, sees Hero head out into the wild with just five days to return, and after just thirty seconds of B-roll driving he crashes his car — offscreen, like much of the action — and is carried into a weird community enclave where he finds Bernice. He finds her immediately. Part of it is Sono’s disinterest in traditional narrative beats, but it also lends a murkiness to the geography of this world. Everything feels so immediately close to everything else, and it comes as no surprise when Hero and his new friends decide to rebel, spend a montage fine-tuning some epic-looking war rigs, and then never even drive them anywhere. Instead, they take a few steps and come face to face with a mutated convict (Nick Cassavetes, obviously) and his gang of cool-looking warriors who’ve been built up as a threat throughout the film… before dispersing amicably and without a fight.
Sono doesn’t skimp on all of the action in Prisoners of the Ghostland as we do get some mild swordplay and gunshots. Cage partakes in some of it — take note of when his character unnecessarily dons a motorcycle helmet, the better with which to hide his stunt double — but the best beats come courtesy of the great Tak Sakaguchi as the Governor’s sidekick, Yasujiro. His filmography is filled with action classics including Versus (2000), Tokyo Gore Police (2008), and Sono’s Why Don’t You Play in Hell? (2013), and he stands out here despite being a supporting player.
Still, you’d hesitate to call this an action movie. Sono has made far better ones before including Tokyo Tribe (2014) and Tag (2015), but his English debut feels intentionally restrained in both its setpieces and the filmmaker’s usual eccentricities. That’s not to suggest it’s not still a bit nutty, but he never really swings for the fences with his typical, targeted craziness outside of brief asides and quick beats. Cage is still happy to deliver, though, whether he’s robbing a pastel-colored bank, stirring up a crowd while clothed only in a sumo wrestler’s mawashi, or trying to rally the downtrodden into action by screaming about his testicle. (I know I’ve already mentioned that, but seriously, this is going to be as memorable and as memed as his bee encounter in 2006’s The Wicker Man.)
Sono’s visual flair is still very evident in Prisoners of the Ghostland‘s production design with brightly colored costumes, a masked populace, and a side character prone to dressing women in mannequin skin. It all exists on the periphery, though, despite teasing things far more intriguing than the recycled hero plot. Sono’s arguably got something to say here — he usually does — but his themes are typically far more successful when paired with more entertaining and/or thoughtful fare.
As a post-apocalyptic action/adventure, Prisoners of the Ghostland is more Hell Comes to Frogtown (1988) than either of the classics mentioned at the top, but even there it lacks the commitment of that Roddy piper “gem.” It ultimately feels incomplete, even at an overly long one-hundred-minute running time, and whether by choice or circumstance the result is a film that’s only at its best in spurts. If this is your first Sono, know that as crazy as some parts might seem, they’re nothing compared to the absolute magic he’s capable of as evident in his other works named above. Like his fellow countryman Takashi Miike, Sono has directed an astonishing number of movies (this is his 41st, give or take) — they’re not all winners, but they’re all Sono.