Sion Sono’s debut film in the English language is an East-meets-West genre medley centred on the hero monomyth, and crucially the samurai movie’s influence on both the modern western and post-apocalyptic actioner. Meanwhile, Nicolas Cage gets to do his thing, and that’s always welcome.
Prisoners of the Ghostland is an oddball movie that leaves you wondering if they ran out of money at some point and faced the challenge of cobbling together a storyline in the editing suite. Either that or they spent the limited budget on beautiful art direction and then had to come up with a plot as an afterthought, once they’d built the sets and made the costumes. Sion Sono’s stylish sensibilities, however, mean the result is always intriguing, if wildly uneven and sometimes lacking in energy.
Cage plays Hero, a man who is anything but. At least, initially. He’s a bank robber looking for redemption, after a young boy is murdered by his partner, Psycho (Nick Cassavetes), during a heist. When the Governor of Samurai Town’s granddaughter goes missing, Hero is charged with bringing her back. It turns out she’s not his granddaughter at all, but his property (echoes of Mad Max: Fury Road stir). To make sure Hero behaves himself, he’s fitted with an explosive leather suit. There’s a counter on the wrist showing he has three days to find Bernice (Sofia Boutella), or the explosives attached to his crotch region will make Hero a eunuch. Oh, and his arms will explode too, if he touches Bernice. If he fails completely, after five whole days, the device will blow his head clean off. It’s all very gonzo and sounds like there’s a good time to be had…in theory.
But then it just doesn’t go anywhere and Cage losing his shit only gets us so far. If the storyline is basic, the film at least looks visually enticing, with its mixture of feudal Japan, garish futurism, one horse western town and parched landscapes befitting an apocalyptic event. Sono throws everything at the screen – samurai battles, shootouts, Cage shouting and threatening to karate chops the locals – but it rarely provides anything but the sense you’re watching bizarre performance art in place of a good film. Sono and Cage might find it all hilarious, but it’s funny only in the way a private joke is between friends or a cerebral exercise in genre piss-taking, mocking genre staples surrounding codes of honour and redemptive narrative arcs we lap up time and time again.
Martyn Conterio | @martynconterio