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Sundance 2021 Review: 'Prisoners of the Ghostland' surprisingly stays mostly caged

Sion Sono's 'Prisoners of the Ghostland' pits Nicolas Cage against "The Ghostland," and I can't really explain what that means but it's sure some dystopian weirdness.

Cage yells in 'Prisoners Of The Ghostland.'
(Image: © XYZ Pictures)

Our Verdict

'Prisoners of the Ghostland' lacks the explosive energy we're used to from Sion Sono, but there's still excitement in small bursts as Nicolas Cage becomes one with "The Ghostland," whatever that means.

For

  • 💣 East meets West mashup beats.
  • 💣 Japanese spaghetti western notes.
  • 💣 Allows itself to get weird.
  • 💣 Nic Cage annunciating "testicle."

Against

  • 💣 Somehow doesn't get weird enough?
  • 💣 Subplots rarely see their conclusion.
  • 💣 Messy worldbuilding.
  • 💣 Underutilizes most actors besides Bill Moseley.

Prisoners of the Ghostland is part of our Sundance Film Festival 2021 coverage. You can find all of our reviews here.

I’d be here for seventeen years listing all the titles that could have influenced Prisoners of the Ghostland. Kim Jee-woon’s The Good, The Bad, The Weird. Ana Lily Amirpour’s The Bad Batch. Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives. That’s without acknowledging Sion Sono’s first English-language title as his take on an atomic-age Mad Max, mixed with Americana satires and spaghetti-samurai-western notes that market a more enthralling, zany-to-the-max dystopian thriller than shown. In a post-screening Q&A, Sono mentions toning down his signature insanity (paraphrasing) with the prospect of filming more stateside releases. Frankly, coming from a Sono appreciator who craves his insatiable lust for hysterical chaos, this tamer Sono doesn’t scratch the usual itch.

Nicolas Cage stars as an imprisoned bank robber who’s strapped into a black leather suit rigged with explosives by Samurai Town’s governor (Bill Moseley) and given a mission. Rescue “The Governor’s” adopted granddaughter, Bernice (Sofia Boutella), and return in three days before the rigged collar, forearm, and testicle detonations go boom. The reluctant hero accepts, given no juicy alternative, and revs towards the “Ghostland” with nothing but a mid-level sedan. Sono’s protagonist encounters the “Rat Clan,” strips Bernice of the painted mannequin fittings that became her camouflage, and confronts the nuclear-blast-incinerated soul of his ex-partner, Psycho (Nick Cassavetes). For starters.

Sion Sono. Nicolas Cage. Testicular threats. How could this lead-in describe anything other than five-star quality?

Prisoners of the Ghostland is best represented by the modern Japanese backdrops Sono converts into Western alleyways littered with bolero ties and geisha dresses. Cameras open on a sanitized-white bank with the biggest, color-forward gumball machine imaginable but then transitions into sheriff's denim and smudged junkyard griminess caught between historical eras. Pistols and katanas seek vengeance, as cavalier cowboy attitudes juxtapose against neon storefront signage. Sono’s Ghostland of scaffolding and one massive tower’s clock face models Turbo Kid accentuations in waste-heap chicness, but on The Governor’s turf, Sono’s hodgepodge production feels complete. Elsewhere, he’s grasping at recycled straws.

Frustrations continually circle back to a recurring sense that Sono’s not sure which toys to choose in his blades-and-bullets sandbox. Narrative and character development take a backseat to world-building whiffs like “Rat Man’s” nonsensically incoherent voice modulation. Or the inexplicable geographic dimensions. Or “curses” with hurried over mythology that supposedly poison this once-bustling city, now ignored after a nuclear power site accident reduced the radius to rubble. Given how Moseley plays a piggish American stereotype down to vain obsessions over the cleanliness of his all-white suit (red gloves), one can interpret the assertions Sono makes on US-Japanese relations of the nuclear era - but, the rest?

Why does Bernice trust her gruff guardian so rapidly, given the one thoughtful backstory note that does exist? What’s the deal with Psycho’s spirit clan of violent thugs previously killed in the Ghostland fallout? Where’s the on-record separation between The Governor's metropolis and Enoch’s time-worshipping community? The “Tic Tok” cult? Sono’s working in broad strokes, which paints bold outlines but undervalues more intricate details.

That’s not to say Prisoners of the Ghostland lacks any “Sion Sono Specific” individuality. While characterization primarily reduces Cage to less notable grimaces and grumbles (but not Mandy levels), choice instances like “The Testicle Monologue” or his showoff switcheroo from vehicle to bicycle are slap-your-knee victorious. Sofia Boutella doesn't thrill to the extent I’d hoped, given badass highlights in Kingsman: The Secret Service and beyond, except when periodically swivel-kicking boneheads. Sono's prop-latent universe includes carnivalesque 18-wheelers outlined in neon light trims, modded arm-swords on mangled appendages, and Mad Maxian devastation that still carries creative flourishes. All the building blocks are in place for another Sono epic, yet execution via restraint suggests the director’s engaged autopilot.

How am I not typing about the union of Sion “Why Don’t You Play In Hell” Sono and Nicolas “Face/Off” Cage in all caps? A Japanese movie where Cage’s first line is “BANZAI!” as he bursts into a bank, shotgun cocked? Something’s amiss.

Here’s the underlying takeaway. Prisoners of the Ghostland is mediocre at best, which translates to disappointment because Sion Sono’s not the filmmaker you’d expect to reign-in lunacy that’s stretched in too many directions. There’s a notion of playing towards crossover audiences, between the decision to keep fights largely bloodless (except when squirt-gun spurting) and the playground nature that follows formulaic swordplay. Then, Cage and Tak Sakaguchi’s master bodyguard trade nut-shots, forced to pause their scuffle (because ouchies), and Sono’s sense of humor slinks back into frame before exiting as quickly. Writers Aaron Hendry and Reza Sixo Safai render their script’s continuity laughably impotent, but despite plotted shortcomings, when Prisoners of the Ghostland captures authentic Sono at his Sonoiest? It’s aces.

Heavy emphasis on the “when,” I must stress.