You know when cult hero Nicolas Cage describes a film as his ‘wildest’ to date, you’re in for one hell of a ride. Marketing statements like this usually don’t hold any weight, but from the man who has a breakdown in his underwear in Mandy, screams the alphabet in Vampire’s Kiss and starred in the unintentionally hilarious The Wicker Man, perhaps it’s worth paying attention. It’s only after watching and digesting Prisoners of the Ghostland that you reflect on Cage’s potential overstatement and think – he wasn’t lying.
Cage stars as Hero, a former bank robber imprisoned in Samurai Town. This post-apocalyptic frontier city is run by The Governor, a whiter-than-white warlord who enlists Hero to track down and retrieve his absconded granddaughter Bernice (Sofia Boutella). Hero has 5 days to save Bernice or his newly outfitted leather suit will explode, in addition to its other ‘neuro-sensor’ modifications which prevent him from harming her or acting towards her with promiscuity. East meets West as Hero battles the wasted landscape and mutilated criminals, slicing a path towards Bernice and also, his own retribution.
Director Sion Sono takes the helm for this distorted nightmare, and ‘the most subversive filmmaker working in Japanese cinema today’ does not pull any punches. His combination with Cage is an eccentric match made in heaven. As the lead, you never know whether you’ll witness an acting masterclass like Pig or an absurd and uncompromising performance which he’s built a career on; however, within 5 minutes Cage has screamed the house down robbing a bank and kicked a football nonchalantly at passing Geisha, leaving the viewer in no doubt what to expect.
With dyed black hair and a leather jacket dotted with bulbous explosives which look like body targets on a LaserZone vest, Cage doubles as a Stepdad during a mid-life crisis, increasing the absurdity with each passing frame. He is the only actor in Hollywood today who can go from screaming ‘TESTICALLLL’ to having psychedelic, ethereal flashbacks a minute later, without the audience batting an eyelid. To put it succinctly, he makes Prisoners of the Ghostland a unique viewing experience which fans of his will revel in.
The remainder of the dystopian world does struggle to keep up with Cage’s outlandish behaviour and unconventional charm. The set designs are so conspicuous and incongruent with the surroundings, the viewer is tricked into thinking that a satirical musical is about to break out. It plays like Blazing Saddles with samurai, except you’re never sure if the cast are in on the joke. Think Escape from New York on a shoestring budget, where the motives of barren cults are as incomprehensible as some of the dialogue.
The post-apocalyptic avenues are derivative to put it politely. It utilises a similar aesthetic and tone to such dystopian classics as Mad Max and Waterworld, which does admittedly hinder its own statement. To the backdrop of atomic fallout, the nods to 80s politics and pop culture exploits like The Toxic Avenger are evident, but the plot never takes itself too seriously. It would be easy for Sono to allude to the obvious nuclear past between USA and Japan, but that doesn’t fit into this unorthodox world which instead highlights the irrationalities of everyday life. Religion, culture, individualism and redemption are explored right on that fine line between ridiculous and profound; a line which Sono and Cage love to flirt with.
But that’s the real beauty of Prisoners of the Ghostland. It never confines the audience but welcomes them to search for any meaning, no matter how subverted it may be. You can choose to do that or simply pay attention to the entertaining action sequences and spoofy twists. In particular, the samurai scenes shoot remarkably well, and although they are forced to put a helmet on Cage to help edit in his stunt double, the choreography reminds the viewer of the old Kurosawa hack-and-dash.
As you can already tell, Sono showcases and replicates an eclectic mix of pop culture moments, which would typically detract from any focal point. However, Joseph Trapanese does an impressive job with the score, balancing a myriad of genres to help the feature flow. Wild West beats and high-pitched Japanese action tones are blended effectively to prevent the viewer being bogged down by the multitude of influences. In some weird distorted combination, there are elements of Morricone paired with RZA, playing like Kill Bill on the western frontier.
Is it a masterpiece in cinematic satire, poking the finger at whitewashing throughout historical Asian films, or is it simply a batshit crazy rendition using whimsical tropes and borderline insensitive depictions? I’m not sure Nic Cage even knows, but either way Prisoners of the Ghostland is an uninhibited and wildly fun frolic which will polarise audiences on its invariable journey to cult status. It is undoubtedly gratuitous and at times completely incoherent, but that’s part and parcel of the Sono-Cage experience. If you don’t love them at their worst, then you don’t deserve them at their testicle-detonating, incessantly decapitating, gatling-gun genocidal best.