To save a kidnapped girl who has suddenly vanished, a legendary criminal must break an awful spell.
The aesthetically gonzo piece blows my cherry for filmmaker Sion Sono, much like Nicolas Cage had one of his testicles blown off in Prisoners of the Ghostland. I’ll mention right away that the style of inspirations is present, as the production design mixing Westerns and 12th-century Japanese culture (with supposedly more modern interior designs and neon-lit exteriors) is striking. It’s made up of equally exciting locales, such as an old west town ruled by a shady and cruel ruler who has a grasp on the Japanese people, forcing them into sexual servitude.
Off in the distance, there’s also a post-apocalyptic landscape ravaged by a chemical catastrophe that turned some inmates into bizarrely disfigured and burnt monsters. Meanwhile, ordinary citizens worship a doomsday clock while attempting to survive, occasionally disguising up as scary mannequins to avoid actual ghosts and other dangers, if I understand correctly.
Again, it’s clear that a lot of creative craziness went into the overall premise for Prisoners of the Ghostland (also Sion Sono’s English-language filmmaking debut, based on a story by Aaron Hendry and Reza Sixo Safai), which adds to how uninteresting 90% of the picture seems. In retrospect, perhaps I shouldn’t have ruined Nicolas Cage losing half of his junk; it’s one of the rare occasions when anything occurs. Naturally, his response is funny, and it’s likely to appear in updated collections of the iconic performer breaking down.
Nonetheless, Nicolas Cage, known as Hero, appears to be a deliberate contradiction since Prisoners of the Ghostland begins with the adored maniac stealing a bank in Samurai Town with his tall and powerful sidekick nicknamed Psycho (Nick Cassavettes). The crime does not go as planned, and the film cuts to Hero being locked up, leaving viewers to fill in a few inevitable blanks.
However, he is released from confinement by the governor (Bill Moseley, who looks like Colonel Sanders and chews the scenery). The governor assigns him the task of traversing the perilous titular Ghostland to retrieve his runaway favorite sex slave (Sofia Boutella’s Bernice, who is strangely unable to speak for the majority of the running time but is one of the few talents which comes close to conveying the insanity of a sex slave).
The kicker is that Hero is forced to exchange his sumo wrestler underpants for a leather one-piece outfitted with bombs (particularly on the neck, shoulders, and testicles) that would detonate if he threatens Bernice or defies orders. Hero needs Bernice to say her name into a microphone by the end of the second day, so the governor knows she’s still alive. Otherwise, it’s explosives all over again.
With a botched bank robbery, a melting pot of cultures (hoping for a desired thematic effect), a simple rescue promise, and the urgency of bombs equipped to the protagonist, Prisoners of the Ghostland set itself up for a journey of ongoing violence and action that pays homage to both Western and Japanese cinematic influences. For whatever reason, the story comes to a halt, with exposition and world-building attempts mired in style rather than characterization. Yes, Nicolas Cage is given some ridiculous lines to yell alongside a silly idea for an action film, but Prisoners of the Ghostland becomes a prisoner of its over-stylization.
There is also a mystery right-hand samurai to the governor (Tak Sakaguchi) who bides his time before launching his revolt for personal reasons. It’s a plotline that ultimately allows for some gratifying swordplay, but, like Hero, he has to wait until the last 20 minutes to begin painting the walls crimson. None of this would be a problem if the plot weren’t unoriginal, boring, and disconnected.
It’s always lovely to watch Nicolas Cage combine his zaniness with real character work, but after 45 minutes, it’s clear that no one has anything significant to do, leaving one yearning for a rage-Cage performance. The film’s technical solid features are all that keep Prisoners of the Ghostland bearable despite its sluggish tempo and listless plot.