Nicolas Cage stars in samurai zombie western Prisoners of the Ghostland

Eccentric Japanese auteur Sion Sono clearly tried to make the most gonzo midnight movie you can imagine.

There are actor-director pairings that seem obvious, like a match made in heaven; there are actor-director pairings that we perhaps would never think of independently but that make perfect sense. I would never have thought to pair Nicolas Cage and outsized gonzo auteur Sion Sono in a film, mainly because Sono has never worked in English before, but once their collaboration was announced, it was exceedingly difficult to see it as anything other than a poetically perfect match. Sono makes excessive, sometimes punishingly long movies in which boundaries are transgressed willy-nilly; though it’s hard to look back at his oeuvre and see where Cage might fit in there, it’s less difficult to imagine a bespoke Cage project springing from the mind of Sion Sono.

In fact, the very idea of these two titans of excess pairing together on a project seems like too much to be contained in a finite film. Before we knew absolutely anything about Prisoners of the Ghostland, expectations were sky-high — and I’m sad to report that Prisoners of the Ghostland, while as excessive and bonkers as one might expect, is a bit of a disappointment. Disappointment in the sense that it becomes clear that its excessive, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to weathered genre tropes has an affected quality that almost betrays how aware everyone is of what a momentous occasion this film could be. Despite being entirely on both Sono and Cage’s wavelength, it also feels like it’s trying insanely hard to be a cult movie… which never gets a film off to a good start.

Hero (Cage) has been jailed in the post-apocalyptic Western outpost of Samurai Town after a bank robbery gone awry due to his partner’s (Nick Cassavetes) itchy trigger finger. Samurai Town’s governor (Bill Moseley) offers Hero a chance to buy his freedom back by going on a mission to find the governor’s adopted daughter Bernice (Sofia Boutella) after her disappearance. Hero is outfitted with a leather jumpsuit in which several small bombs have been implanted; should he act in a way unbecoming of a hero like him, the bombs will go off, rendering his arms, legs and/or testicles unusable. Hero thus sets out into the post-apocalyptic world in order to find Bernice and bring her back — a simple task rendered not so simple when he actually finds Bernice.

A hodge-podge of genre elements with absolutely no qualms about making it obvious where it got its inspiration from, Prisoners of the Ghostland has this kind of built-in gonzo epicness that has been less prevalent in Japanese cinema in the last few years. In a sense, it hearkens back to genre cinema from 20-ish years ago, when filmmakers like Ryuhei Kitamura and Takashi Miike were making such bug-eyed lunacy that finding a DVD of one of their films was spoken about with hushed tones by film nerds. Prisoners of the Ghostland is kind of like that as well, a self-aware genre smoothie in which zombies, samurai, cowboys, Johns Woo and Wick, Mad Max and a plethora of other genre stalwarts are hat-tipped without much context. 

It’s all good fun for a while, the genre elements blending together with a certain panache. Cage is in particularly fine form, with an operatic delivery of the word “testicle” likely to be the most enduring contribution to the overall oeuvre. But the film’s particular off-kilter brand of humour eventually gives way to generalized chaos and confusion, and Sono can’t quite sustain his rickety leftfield choices over the course of an entire film. Prisoners of the Ghostland eventually reveals itself to be a metaphor for the history of Japan as a whole, an interesting but ultimately hamfisted way of trying to lend some credence to a movie that has been, up to that point, mainly composed of Nicolas Cage wailing on dudes.

I’m not sure I can blame anyone for how Prisoners of the Ghostland turned out. After all, it absolutely features what we want from a Sion Sono and Nicolas Cage collaboration. But there’s an evenness of tone and a repetition that ultimately winds up being sort of wearying over the course of nearly two hours. It’s a film tailor-made for midnight screenings, an amalgamation of signs and signifiers with every dial pushed up to 11 — pretty much what I expected. It’s a little disappointing that the film proves to be fairly unmemorable considering it’s trying extra hard to be as memorable as possible.

Prisoners of the Ghostland opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Aug. 27. Watch the trailer here:

Nicolas Cage stars in Prisoners of the Ghostland, directed by Sion Sono

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