Producers: Michael Mendelsohn, Reza Sixo Safai, Laura Rister, Ko Mori and Nate Bolotin Director: Sion Sono Screenplay: Aaron Hendry and Reza Sixo Safai Cast: Nicolas Cage, Sofia Boutella, Nick Cassavetes, Bill Moseley, Tak Sakaguchi and Yuzuka Nakaya Distributor: RLJE Films
The combination of a gonzo director and gonzo star promises much for “Prisoners of the Ghostland,” but the coupling of Sion Sono and Nicolas Cage proves a bust. This is a visually weird but boring and pretty much incomprehensible post-apocalypse samurai western, and Cage looks as bewildered by what’s going on as viewers will be.
The picture’s set in some future bit desolation in Japan where a white-suited tyrant called The Governor (Bill Moseley) presides over a small collection of buildings that include a geisha bordello and a jail. The residents might be either kimono-clad, masked women chanting as they sway in unison at The Governor’s entrance in a limo, or roughneck dudes in cowboy gear wearing holsters and battered hats. All pay deference to their undisputed leader, who owns that whore house.
The Governor has come to town to extract a prisoner from the jail—a bad-ass dude (Cage) known simply as Hero, though he led a bank robbery that resulted in the massacre of workers and customers, including a cute little boy who was just buying a gumball. The Governor offers Hero a reprieve in return for going into a nuclear wasteland beyond his domain to bring back his so-called granddaughter—or sex slave—Bernice (Sofia Boutella), who he claims was kidnapped, though she really escaped. To assure that Hero won’t go rogue, or embrace lustful ideas about Bernice, The Governor orders him dressed in a special leather outfit equipped with little bombs at strategic bodily points that will detonate if he misbehaves.
So off goes Hero into the Ghostland, as it’s called, where ragtag survivors spend much of their time tinkering with a huge clock that, in their belief, cannot be allowed to reach twelve, since that would signal another nuclear disaster. There he also encounters his old partner, the aptly named Psycho (Nick Cassavetes), who was actually the person responsible for the slaughter during the robbery for which Hero was blamed and was also involved in the catastrophe that created Ghostland. Hero also finds Bernice, though she has been traumatized by experience and is in a virtual coma.
Hero’s experiences—one hesitates to call them adventures—in Ghostland involves serious losses on his part, since a couple of those little bombs go off in the course of them. But they do make him aware of his own role in creating the mess the world is in, and inspire him to lead a rebellion against The Governor, in which he’s joined by a reinvigorated Bernice and even Yasujiro (Tak Sakaguchi), the despot’s chief driver and bodyguard. In the final confrontation, loyalties change and people die, but in the aftermath there is a glimmer of hope for a better society.
All of this sounds more coherent in the telling than it is in the viewing. You have to try to puzzle through the escalating oddities of “Prisoners of the Ghostland” as Sono and editor Taylor Levy parade them stumblingly across the screen, and the cacophony in both images and actions grows painfully irritating (and exhausting) over the long haul.
There are, it must be admitted, momentary flashes of interest in the set and costume designs by Toshihiro Isomi and Chieko Matsumoto, which use the clash of styles fairly effectively, and Sohei Tanikawa’s cinematography is also impressive overall, though there’s only one really dazzling sequence–that bank robbery with its colorful gumballs, shown several times in flashback. The oddball musical ensemble interruptions by composer Joseph Trapanese are also striking, though not necessarily in a good way.
But otherwise the movie is just a pointless, ugly jumble. It’s no wonder that Cage doesn’t bother to exert himself too much, being content to endure the embarrassments the screenplay demands of him as stoically as possible, and when Hero is required to spring into action, the use of doubles for him is cruelly obvious. It doesn’t help that Sakaguchi is around to demonstrate what real skill in swordplay looks like; he might not be the most expressive of actors, but he puts across an authentic samurai vibe with ease.
Elsewhere in the cast there’s less to keep you occupied. Boutella spends much of her screen time in a coma, and Cassavetes has a crazed scare down pat, but manikins might as well. Moseley’s scenery-chomping might be intended as a hoot, but it’s just dull, especially since he doesn’t have the vocal chops to deliver his lines with a really threatening tone; his voice is just too high-pitched.
“Prisoners of the Ghostland” is certainly strange. It’s just not very interesting or entertaining.