Director: Sion Sono
Writers: Aaron Hendry (written by), Reza Sixo Safai (screenplay)
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Sofia Boutella, Bill Moseley, Nick Cassavetes, Tak Sakaguchi
Producers: Nate Bolotin, Michael Mendelsohn, Ko Mori, Laura Rister, Reza Sixo Safai
Music: Joseph Trapanese
Cinematographer: Sohei Tanikawa
Editor: Taylor Levy
Cert: 15 (TBC)
Running time: 100mins
What’s the story: The possible near-future. In the dangerous Samurai Town, Hero (Cage) is released from prison to retrieve Bernice (Boutella), the granddaughter of the local governor (Moseley). But Bernice has fled to the Ghostland, a dangerous and polluted desert waste outside the town’s borders.
What’s the verdict: Nicolas Cage and Sion Sono collaborate on an Eastern-Western that sounds like Escape From New York meets Mad Max: Fury Road meets Wild at Heart. We had a place reserved in our Top 10 Movies of 2021 based on that alone. Sad to report then that Prisoners of the Ghostland proves a listless misfire.
As a result, Cage’s bank robbing anti-hero, who eventually earns the moniker “Hero,” is missing that insane spark that make his classic performances so memorable. He seems unsure which tone to strike, so plays safe by underplaying everything. Same too for Sofia Boutella, similarly Mogadon-zonked as Bernice.
Even actors trying to break free of the somnambulant funk coating the film fare little better. Despite his bite being worse than his genteel-accented bark, Bill Moseley fails to scare up menace as the Governor, the tyrant demanding Hero bring his granddaughter home. Cage’s Face/Off co-star Nick Cassavetes may play a character named Psycho, Hero’s partner whose fiery temper led to a bank robbery turning bloody and Hero doing serious stir, but his villainy is also skated over too briefly.
Perhaps the heart attack Sion Sono suffered before shooting began necessitated a reduction of scope. It certainly relocated the production from Mexico to Japan, and saw Boutella replace Imogen Poots when the British actor departed the project. Plus, the electric energy that powered such Sono titles as Suicide Circle, Why Don’t You Play in Hell, Tokyo Tribe and Love and Peace has been cut off.
But, if this is a faithful adaptation of Reza Sixo Safai’s script, he too has questions to answer. Chiefly, why is Prisoners of the Ghostland so reliant on dialogue over action? Greek choruses of abused geisha, marauding mutants, and leering gangsters verbally taunt Hero. Yet, despite the surplus exposition plot incoherence is likely to test audience patience.
What peril there is arrives in the form of explosives that threaten to blow out Hero’s throat or detonate his unmentionables should he try anything with Bernice save return her to Samurai Town. When the action late in the film, it is prosaic gun-and-swordplay, several rungs below what all involved have delivered previously.
Do any saving graces hover over proceedings? The feudal-looking Samurai Town is a madcap environment whose interiors and exteriors can be dizzyingly disassociated. The opening bank job has a visual panache not matched elsewhere in the film. Tag Sakaguchi as a rigid-code samurai understands the intended tone best and the tempo quickens whenever he is onscreen. A running gag about testicular fortitude may be a commentary on the blank-shooting machismo of action cinema. Even if that is not the case, there are a couple of related punchlines that raise a smile.
But the wayward mood, fitful pacing and awkward delivery of English dialogue by largely Japanese supporting players all recall Miike Takashi’s similarly underwhelming Sukiyaki Western Django. Hopefully, Cage and Sono will reteam for another stab at cinematic lunacy. As for Prisoners of the Ghostland, parole denied.