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Review: Prisoners of the Ghostland Is a Try-Hard Misfire for Sion Sono and Nic Cage

The film is a profound disappointment in part because it feels so overdetermined to live up to Sono and Cage’s respective brands.

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Prisoners of the Ghostland
Photo: RLJE Films

A collaboration between Sion Sono and Nicolas Cage sounds like a winner on paper, as both have proven capable of imbuing unhinged midnight-movie fare with tortured soulfulness. Prisoners of the Ghostland, though, is a profound disappointment in part because it feels so overdetermined to live up to their respective brands. The film has a frenetic, try-hard quality, with characters screaming at one another in a failing effort to keep their energy up, as if trying to pick up Cage’s slack. The actor sets out to self-consciously parody a stereotypical action hero but with no emotional conviction, which often brings out his shrillest and most indulgent instincts. Delivering his dialogue at random pitches, Cage seems to be searching for his next meme, while Sono is more concerned with the film’s cluttered, ugly, arbitrarily gonzo set design than with drawing out something meaningful from his star.

Prisoners of the Ghostland is set in Samurai Town, the sort of burg that only exists in movies aspiring to be cult sensations. Samurai Town is quite obviously and proudly a set that suggests a Las Vegas theme park that’s been erected to celebrate the iconography of both samurai films and westerns, in an effort to reveal that each genre is essentially the same apart from locality. The men here wear cowboy hats and leather attire, while the women favor Japanese clothing. Various languages are spoken, but the endless advertisements for various products are predominantly in English, perhaps in a nod toward the vulgarity of American life. As in other Sono films, Prisoners of the Ghostland’s colors are bold and lurid, though the aggressive stylization of the compositions, and of the performances and swirling camera angles, lack the resonance of, say, Why Don’t You Play in Hell?, an ultraviolent yakuza comedy that parodied our commodification of violence with wicked and formally audacious finesse.

Sono is certainly aiming for thematic heft in Prisoners of the Ghostland, which, among its many sins, is surprisingly sentimental and preachy. Samurai Town is a gaudy synecdoche of privileged debauchery that stands in stark contrast to Ghostland, a wrong-side-of-the-tracks part of town that suggests a landfill as designed by Terry Gilliam, with homeless people dressed as mannequins (the film’s one legitimately haunting conceit) and ghosts and animals donning what appears to be tinsel. Here, Sono offers another connection between America and Japan other than commercialism: the shared legacy of nuclear war. Ghostland, per its name, is a bombed-out society that Samurai Town would rather brush under the carpet.

The plot, such as it is, recalls John Carpenter’s Escape from New York: An imprisoned criminal named Hero (Cage) is outfitted with a leather suit full of explosives and tasked by Samurai Town’s ruler, The Governor (Bill Moseley), to recover a sex slave he calls his “granddaughter” (Sofia Boutella) from Ghostland. For whatever reason, probably for its own sake, Moseley is dressed to resemble Colonel Sanders and delivers the erudite-killer shtick he honed in Rob Zombie’s films, while Boutella predictably serves as a beautiful, nearly voiceless foil for the bad men fighting to possess her. Eventually a bunch of people who don’t matter kill one another, while our hero learns a trite life lesson that Sono delivers with little irony. Such ideas, casually explored by livelier Japanese horror movies and noirs for decades, just lay on the screen here, offering weak justification for Sono’s anything-goes approach.

Cast: Nicolas Cage, Sofia Boutella, Nick Cassavetes, Bill Moseley, Tak Sakaguchi, Jai West, Narisa Suzuki, Grace Santos, Takato Yonemoto, Charles Glover, Canon Nawata, Shin Shimizu Director: Sion Sono Screenwriter: Aaron Hendry, Reza Sixo Safai Distributor: RLJE Films Running Time: RLJE Films min Rating: NR Year: 2021

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