For decades, Nicolas Cage played roles in which his “mega-acting” style seemed to run counter to the goals of the film. It wasn’t until 2018 that director Panos Cosmatos found the perfect vehicle for Cage’s chaotic, over-the-top, unpredictable impulses in “Mandy,” kicking off a Cage sub-genre of phantasmagoric nightmare fuel cult films bolstered further by the release of Richard Stanley’s “Color Out of Space” last year.
Making its world premiere at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, “Prisoners of the Ghostland” is the first predominantly English-language film from absurdist Japanese director Sion Sono, and seeks to be the latest entry in this sub-genre. Despite the seemingly perfect combination of Sono’s idiosyncratic authorial vision and Cage’s volcanic charisma, however, “Prisoners of the Ghostland” doesn’t completely live up to the expectations set by its madcap premise.
Cage plays a former bank robber known only as “Hero,” who, in a post-apocalyptic future, is being held captive in Samurai Town — half Western frontier settlement, half feudal Japanese village. In a wacky spoof of the action genre-typical hero’s journey that feels like a deliberate play on John Carpenter’s classic “Escape from New York,” Hero is offered amnesty by The Governor (Bill Mosely), a creepy old pimp dressed in a white suit, on the condition that Hero bring the escaped Bernice (Sofia Boutella) back to Samurai Town.
Unlike Kurt Russell’s “Escape” character Snake Plissken, also known as the personification of ‘80s cool, Cage’s performance elicits laughter through his exaggerated showmanship. One can’t help but chortle when a skintight black leather-clad Cage furiously rides a bicycle into the distance as onlookers cry out, “He’s so badass!” Sono hilariously upends viewer expectations in the genre, adding quirky twists where least expected — Cage’s leather suit, for example, is fitted with explosive charges on each arm that will blow up upon detecting the slightest desire to strike a woman. Likewise, crotch explosives placed near Hero’s “testicules,” as the Governor refers to them, will discharge the moment any carnal impulse crosses his mind.
As Cage sets forth to recapture Bernice, heading into the strange, treacherous world known as the Ghostland, Sono’s aesthetics grow more ambitious — and more surreal. Production was initially supposed to start in Mexico, but when Sono suffered a heart attack, the shoot was moved to his native Japan. Rather than concealing the Eastern influence, Sono embraced it. As a result, the production design of this epic radioactive wasteland blends samurai aesthetics with the Western and post-apocalyptic genres, creating a blasted realm that, though reminiscent of the Fallout games or “Mad Max” films (less “Fury Road” than the far goofier “Beyond Thunderdome”), is also a strikingly unique pastiche.
Once Cage reaches the Ghostland, however, Sono loses focus of the story, instead spending an inordinate amount of time discussing nonessential information about the world’s context, complete with a powerpoint presentation detailing the origins of the apocalypse. The ideas are endlessly interesting: Ghostland is populated by people encased in mannequins, while a strange cult physically prevents a giant clock from ticking, hoping to stop the passage of time entirely. But instead of allowing Hero to move through this fascinating world, Sono’s story languishes so that the details can be fleshed out.
What viewers most want to see in “Prisoners of the Ghostland” is Cage’s ridiculous antics. Some lines of dialogue live up to this expectation, such as when Cage growls, “I got one day to tear this shit apart!” or when, in the film’s best scene by far, Cage bellows the word “testicle” mid-speech, arms outstretched and head turned up to the sky, with a greater sincerity than many Oscar-winning performances.
These moments, however, are small in comparison to the glorious pinnacles of “Mandy” and “Color Out of Space.” Instead, Cage spends too much time listening to exposition and waiting for the surprisingly listless plot to push him into the next weird occurrence. While “Prisoners of the Ghostland” is bursting with Sono and Cage’s combined creative energy, its meandering story and seeming disregard for consistent character motivations ensures that only the most passionate B-movie fans will be able to fully appreciate it.
Neil Haeems is a deputy arts & entertainment editor. Contact him at [email protected].