Feb 5, 2021 | LIFE | By Andrew Rodden | Illustration by Patil Khakhamian
Sion Sono’s English-language debut, “Prisoners of the Ghostland,” is cluttered with A, B, and even C movie action sequences, with each high and low matched by Nicolas Cage’s equally inconsistent performance. The film offers a welcome reprieve from the somewhat dry lineup of films featured at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, and it’s refreshing for such an absurd rollercoaster of a film to not take itself so seriously. But, without any cohesion of story, the movie leaves its audience barely hanging on, not for their lives, but to their attention spans.
The plot isn’t what most would call “easy to understand.” “Ghostland” is set in Samurai Town, which is … the main street of a Wild West town? Eighth-century Japan? An amusement park? You’re not given much time to really care, as the film kicks off with Hero (Cage) and his co-conspirator Psycho (Nick Cassavetes) shooting up a bank and getting sent to jail after they botch the job.
However, donning a ten-gallon hat, The Governor (Bill Moseley) offers Cage’s Hero a proposal: retrieve his adopted granddaughter, Bernice (Sofia Boutella), from the Ghostland, and Hero will be freed from prison. Oh, yeah, and he only has five days to do it, otherwise two bombs attached to the crotch of his leather jumpsuit will explode.
If you’re excited for a wild Nic Cage, don’t get your hopes up. His performance as Hero comes nowhere near his legendary 90s run of “Face/Off” (1997), “Con Air” (1997), and “The Rock” (1996). Hell, his performance is even a step down from his recent role in “Mandy” (2018), regardless of how hard XYZ Films –– the production company that produced the two movies –– tries to market “Ghostland” Cage as “Mandy” Cage. That being said, “Ghostland” contains several kickass romps through some brazen set pieces, and Cage might be the best man for the job.
Having directed more than 50 movies, the prolific Sono is a key figure in the Japanese Horror (J-Horror) movement of the 1990s and 2000s, propped up by his “Suicide Club” (2001) and “Love Exposure” (2008), among dozens of hits and misses. Nic Cage has similarly been featured in over 100 motion pictures, also starring in dozens of hits and misses. These are two prolific forces in their respective parts of the movie world, and when brought together, the result is a mess of riches.
“Prisoners of the Ghostland” is the inevitable continuation of the samurai-cowboy subgenre that has super-glued Japanese and American cinema together for over half a century, but the film bears the globby, mutated weight of Akira Kurosawa, Sergio Leone, and “Mad Max: Fury Road” (2015). By recklessly combining this amount of excess into one film, Sono sends “Ghostland” hurtling towards critical mass, and the result is explosive.
“Prisoners of the Ghostland” is entertaining enough, don’t get me wrong; it is even one of the more entertaining movies of Sundance 2021. However, looking back, it’s just too convoluted and drowned in excess to pack the punch I was expecting it to throw, which is simply disappointing.