By: Anthony Francis
“Prisoners of the Ghostland”
In the first 15 minutes of the unique Japanese filmmaker Sion Sono’s English language debut, we get a wild robbery that goes violently wrong, a samurai battle, and Nicolas Cage handcuffed and standing proudly and publicly in his underwear, waiting for a mission.
This crazily entertaining film had me at hello!
Day 4 of the Sundance Film Festival brought action lovers something truly batshit unique. Ghosts both literal and metaphorical exist in Sion Sono’s “Prisoners of the Ghostland”, an explosion of different genres and styles that is entertaining and inventive in every moment.
Nicolas Cage plays a bank robber who sits in jail in “Samurai Town”, after a robbery goes unbelievably bad.
Samurai Town has an interesting design. Its streets are Old-World Japan in their style and samurai patrol the area. Inside the jail, the sheriff and his deputies are dressed as cowboys and all carry six-shooters as their sidearms.
The great Bill Moseley creates another fantastic character as “The Governor”, the bearded, white-suited, cowboy hat wearing man who rules over all of Samurai Town.
Tak Sakaguchi plays The Governor’s head assassin, Yasujiro. Sakaguchi plays the role with a stone-cold steely silence that blends together the purebred cool of both Toshiro Mifune and Charles Bronson. Yasujiro is a dangerous man working for a villain. But he is man with a conscious. A “gun for hire” that will see out his duty to the end, but not at the expense of honor.
The Governor promises Cage’s character a full pardon if he successfully rescues the Governor’s missing granddaughter (Sofia Boutella, an actress who continues to carve out a unique career for herself).
Cage accepts and must defeat an evil curse to rescue the granddaughter. The catch? The Governor puts Cage in a full body leather suit complete with little explosive devices on his arms, neck, and genitalia.
If Cage’s character tries to get aggressive with a female, run off with the granddaughter, or hasn’t completed his task within the five days, the mini bombs will detonate.
While this sounds dangerously close to John Carpenter’s classic “Escape From New York”, these details are mere homage, and the similarities end there. Sono’s film has bigger and much wilder fish to fry.
What follows is Cage (known only as “Hero”) leading a revolution against the oppressive Governor and his band of samurai warriors.
Sono treats the viewers to some visceral action sequences with plenty of blood splatter to please both Action and Horror fans.
There are samurai battles. nomadic “ghosts” from a nuclear waste accident, geishas, and… Nicolas Cage.
Since Cage almost fully gave up on doing important work in mainstream films, his performances have gone beyond off-the-rails and it is always a crapshoot whether we will get good “Crazy Cage” or bad “Crazy Cage”.
In this film, we get the actor’s good crazy. Cage is having a blast as the screenplay gives him ample reasons for his thespian histrionics.
Director Sono and Nic Cage are the perfect cinematic maverick team. Both men are famous for working without a net and here they up their respective wild-man antes to astronomical levels.
This is a film that truly defies comfortable definitions. There are aspects of Spaghetti Westerns, Samurai films, Horror movies, and even the “Mad Max” saga.
The film is alive with eye-popping bizarro cinematography courtesy of Sohei Tanikawa and Joseph Trapanese’s score uses thunderous Kodo drums blended seamlessly with synthesized queues infused with an air of Tangerine Dream.
Nic Cage quoting “Hamlet” and fighting samurai Warriors in a football helmet with a sword for a hand, teenage girls shooting Gatling Guns, citizens breaking out into song, and a samurai battle set to Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle”. You read that correctly!
“Prisoners of the Ghostland” is a unique smorgasbord of genres that manages to find its own style. Sion Sono sets out to entertain through interesting visual pallets, quirky characters, and big action moments. The filmmaker succeeds in a big way.
You will not see another film like it this year.