"I'll just get my gear."

Prisoners of the Ghostland

PRISONERS OF THE GHOSTLAND is the latest entry in the Nicolas-Cage-weirdo-arthouse-version-of-an-exploitation-movie subgenre (see also: BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS, MANDY, PIG). This one is unusual because it’s the first English-language movie from respected Japanese director Sion Sono (SUICIDE CLUB, LOVE EXPOSURE, WHY DON’T YOU PLAY IN HELL). It’s the first movie I’ve seen from him, but I promise I’ll watch TOKYO TRIBE, which has been recommended to me a few times.

It takes place in what seems like a post-apocalyptic settlement, though apparently it’s just a section of Japan that has been quarantined after a nuclear waste accident. The place is called Samurai Town, and it’s mostly populated by Japanese people in traditional robes, but “The Governor” (Bill Moseley, PINK CADILLAC) is an American redneck. I like how it looks like a very colorful period samurai movie but then there’s a car and Moseley in a white suit and cowboy hat.

Cage plays “Hero,” an imprisoned bank robber The Governor releases and sends on a mission to retrieve his “granddaughter” Bernice (Sofia Boutella, STREETDANCE 2, KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE, STAR TREK BEYOND, THE MUMMY, ATOMIC BLONDE, CLIMAX, HOTEL ARTEMIS) from the radiated wasteland known as The Ghostland. He makes him put on a leather jumpsuit that looks like something out of DEATH RACE 2000 and then explains that it has miniature bombs attached to it and they’re set to explode if he tries to hit an innocent woman or tamper with the suit. There are also two explosives right over what the Governor calls his “testicules” for certain other contingencies. I like how this is kind of a sillier take on an ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK setup, with the Governor having made up more convoluted rules like there’s a countdown on his wrist and he has to have Bernice speak into it to add another two more days. (So it’s a problem when he finds her and she can’t speak.)

We know from an earlier scene that Bernice is not missing – she and a few others escaped from captivity in the Governor’s brothel. Now she’s miserable living with a bunch of crazies who believe they have to hold ropes tied to the hands of a clocktower clock because if time progresses they will explode, but that doesn’t mean she’s gonna want to go back. Hero is not above dragging her back against her will to survive, but he’s not completely heartless either. He’s haunted by visions of a little boy (Hiroshi Kaname) who was shot to death during the bank robbery he was busted for. He also has bad memories of his crime partner Psycho (his FACE/OFF co-star Nick Cassavetes).

He meets the leader of the Ghostlanders, Enoch (Charles Glover, MITCHELL, SHIN GODZILLA, MANHUNT) and lots of strange mutants and deranged seeming scavengers including one named Ratman (Young Dais, THE OUTSIDER) who has big wire puffs on his shoulders that we will find out also light up with Christmas lights at night. Some good fashion in this one.

Amidst all the wreckage there are mannequins posed here and there, and there are also lots of people (some of them mutants) standing still covered in layers of pieced together parts of different mannequins. They’re very creepy/cool looking and one of the many striking images in the movie is when he’s pulling pieces off one of them, like unpeeling layers of an onion, and reveals just enough of the face underneath for it to be unmistakably Boutella.


PRISONERS OF THE GHOSTLAND is about 2/3 of the way to a movie I would absolutely love. It’s one of the more wacko Cage movies, but with huge production value. It looks beautiful and most scenes seem to take place on huge, detailed sets with like 50-100 extras, many of them characters in the STAR WARS sort of sense – maybe they don’t do much, but we watch them, examine their strange costumes and behavior, try to discern some things and wonder about them. There’s that ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK ex-con-forced-to-go-on-a-dangerous-mission set up (I love shit like that) and the world of it reminds me of MAD MAX: BEYOND THUNDERDOME meets SIX STRING SAMURAI, with some imagery leaning more Jodorowsky or Julie Taymor (in strangeness, if not substance).

And Cage’s role is novel in that it uses his mega-powers in what seems like sort of a parody of his old action hero persona. He’s acting like a tough anti-hero. He has a couple fight scenes, which he handles well. He’s grumpy and sullen but comes to understand his part in not only Bernice’s predicament, but the nuclear accident itself, and takes on the heroic responsibility to lead a rebellion against the oppressive Governor. But he deflates his action hero glamour when one of his balls comically explodes early on and a hand gets blown off not long after that and he becomes helpless for a while. And Cage seems more interested in trying out his oddball acting experiments than portraying a character. When he’s dragged out in shackles and has to act tough while a crowd berates him he does a bit of an Elvis imitation. He spends most of the section where he enters The Ghostland being carried around laying down and reacting to everything he sees. He does a couple of his tirades and adds yelling “Hi-fuckin-yaa!” in a fight scene to the legendary Cage moments pantheon along with sobbing the words “boo hoo” in VAMPIRE’S KISS.

Also, it’s just really cool to see Bill motherfuckin Chop Top Moseley as the co-lead in an expensive looking movie with an Academy Award winning genius actor. You don’t see that every day. If you know him from HOUSE OF 1,000 CORPSES / THE DEVIL’S REJECTS / 3 FROM HELL and stuff the voice and threatening uses of flowery language will be very familiar, but it’s new to see him as this powerful figure with an entourage and being as psychotic as usual without having to commit the violence himself. I think he’s scary in the parts where he’s not talking, but just glowering, and it would be cool if this helps him expand the type of roles he gets a little. (Now I want to see him in a non-evil buddy picture with Cage.)

Unfortunately this is a movie that’s not as compelling to watch as it is to describe. How can I explain this? It’s one of those movies that kind of feels like it’s asking “Wouldn’t it be amazing if there was a movie like this?” more than it’s actually being a movie like this. A movie in quotes. Maybe there’s something missing in the script by Aaron Hendry (an actor on the Teen Wolf TV show) and Reza Sixo Safai (“Rockabilly” in A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT), or maybe it’s just how it translated to the screen, but the storytelling is not very coherent. The world is amazing and I’m glad it’s not explained to death, but maybe a little bit about it should be apparent without having to read up on it.

And as much as Cage is the MVP and main attraction here, is it crazy to think it might work better with a Hero who isn’t as bizarre as the world around him – say, Jason Statham or somebody, playing it straight? There are so many characters and with the exception of the Governor’s samurai bodyguard Yasujiro (Tak Sakaguchi, VERSUS, AZUMI, GODZILLA: FINAL WARS) – who you just know bristles every time that asshole yells for “Yah-so-jeer-roh!!!” to do this or that – pretty much every one of them is a weirdo doing and saying weird things at all times. That can be fun for a while, but it starts to feel so aimless. I feel with the exciting setup and climax there’s potential to tell this story with some sense of momentum to it instead of just feeling like stumbling dizzily through a maze until you accidentally find the exit. And yeah, the latter is still a worthwhile experience, but I think the former could be truly great.

But maybe Hero would have to be a little more of a character and Bernice would have to be alot more. I’ve loved Boutella in everything I’ve seen her in, but this is probly the first one where it seems like they didn’t know what to do with her. We’ve seen her excel as a dancer, a bodyguard, an alien, a mummy – surely she should have something great to do in this fucked up nightmare of a world where strangeness reigns! At least she gets a cool sword fight.

PRISONERS OF THE GHOSTLAND is definitely a unique experience, so don’t get me wrong, I kinda liked it. And it’s surely a better use of Cage’s time and talents than some of the more straightforward movies he does. It’s just that it’s so strong and unusual in its visuals and its world and it’s such a great cast that it’s frustrating it doesn’t have the storytelling foundation to feel like more than just goofing around being weird.

This entry was posted on Thursday, November 18th, 2021 at 11:26 am and is filed under Action, Reviews, Science Fiction and Space Shit. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

17 Responses to “Prisoners of the Ghostland”

  1. Yeah, watched this the other day and there seemed to be a lot of weirdness for the sake of being weird. Like it’s not enough that they have a bizarre environment filled with bizarre people doing a bizarre thing like sending Nic Cage on a mission with bombs strapped to his testicles–they have to really have the thing insist upon itself by having people stop to do a song and dance, or mime shooting people with an old-fashioned robot toy, etc etc. So it feels less like you’re watching real people who happen to exist in a strange world that makes sense *to them*, and more like you’re watching a bunch of theater kids freaking out because someone’s dad asked why they spent 40,000 dollars in tuition for their kid to go to drama school and make paper mache masks of Charles Grodin. Can’t you do that at home, Moonbeam? Isn’t there a Youtube video that shows you how to do it?

  2. That’s a good way to describe it, Kaplan. I had a hard time putting a finger on it but I think you nailed it that it doesn’t feel “like you’re watching real people who happen to exist in a strange world that makes sense to them.”

  3. So a movie about a mercenary tasked with rescuing a high ranking official’s relative from a dystopian wasteland, with a bomb set to blow him up if he doesn’t complete the mission in time?

    So……..ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK….but like…real trippy?

  4. I realize I’m rarely in the headspace where I can watch “acid-trip” takes on a genre. I did like MANDY, but truth be told, I preferred the second half that came out of the psychedelic haze of the first. I’m still reluctant to watch THE GREEN KNIGHT because a friend made the mistake of describing it as “EXCALIBUR on Acid”.

  5. Jeffrey Brian Patterson

    November 18th, 2021 at 9:47 pm

    Sion Sono is really great. I’m kicking myself for not seeing this one in theaters. I will watch SUICIDE CLUB tonight, but I’m pretty sure his masterpiece is LOVE EXPOSURE. Anyhow, he’s one of these artists who keep circling around the same set of obsessions. In this case, bands of misfit outsiders, suicide, panties. A good place to begin for Verninites would be WHY DON’T YOU PLAY IN HELL? cause it has significant action. Haha, two gangs of yakuza are gonna clash and the geeky film kids convince them it would be more Japanese to do it with katanas.

  6. Great review! You nailed the problem with this movie on the head. While Sono’s visuals are fantastic as always, there is just too much zaniness and not enough actual character and story to really hold the film together. It’s kind of a signature of Sono, which is why I find him to be a very hit or miss director. But he always takes big swings, which I really appreciate. I actually think TOKYO TRIBE is one of his worst films. Warring gangs having literal rap battles is a brilliant concept, but in the end the music is just meh and the levels of misogyny are off the charts (which is honestly why I decided not to pursue it for SIFF back when it came out). I bet you’d really like WHY DON’T YOU PLAY IN HELL for obvious reasons. But I think his best film so far is TAG, which has some truly unforgettable set pieces, completely unexpected plot developments, and a Lynchian style that is really fantastic. TAG’s lead actress Reina Triendl is great as well.

    As for Cage, whom I deeply deeply love as an actor, this is one of the weakest in his recent wave of unexpected film performances. It suffers in comparison to MANDY and PIG because, let’s face it, those are just masterful performances, but it also can’t hold up to his performance in WILLY’S WONDERLAND (Cage’s choices truly elevate that film to something special). Speaking of elevating, Cage gives a similar playing-to-the-balcony antihero performance in the super low budget supernatural erotic thriller (heavy quotes around all three of those words) BETWEEN WORLDS. That movie is stylistically garbage compared to GHOSTLAND (think Lifetime movie quality), but honestly, that kinda makes it even more enjoyable for me. Plus it has a scene where he is having sex with a woman while reading aloud from a book of poetry by…Nicolas Cage. That is some next level shit, right there.

  7. Inspector Hammer Boudreaux

    November 18th, 2021 at 10:42 pm

    Oops.

  8. Great review! You nailed the problem with this movie on the head. While Sono’s visuals are fantastic as always, there is just too much zaniness and not enough actual character and story to really hold the film together. It’s kind of a signature of Sono, which is why I find him to be a very hit or miss director. But he always takes big swings, which I really appreciate. I actually think TOKYO TRIBE is one of his worst films. Warring gangs having literal rap battles is a brilliant concept, but in the end the music is just meh and the levels of misogyny are off the charts (which is honestly why I decided not to pursue it for SIFF back when it came out). I bet you’d really like WHY DON’T YOU PLAY IN HELL for obvious reasons. But I think his best film so far is TAG, which has some truly unforgettable set pieces, completely unexpected plot developments, and a Lynchian style that is really fantastic. TAG’s lead actress Reina Triendl is great as well.

    As for Cage, whom I deeply deeply love as an actor, this is one of the weakest in his recent wave of unexpected film performances. It suffers in comparison to MANDY and PIG because, let’s face it, those are just masterful performances, but it also can’t hold up to his performance in WILLY’S WONDERLAND (Cage’s choices truly elevate that film to something special). Speaking of elevating, Cage gives a similar playing-to-the-balcony antihero performance in the super low budget supernatural erotic thriller (heavy quotes around all three of those words) BETWEEN WORLDS. That movie is stylistically garbage compared to GHOSTLAND (think Lifetime movie quality), but honestly, that kinda makes it even more enjoyable for me. Plus it has a scene where he is having sex with a woman while reading aloud from a book of poetry by…Nicolas Cage. That is some next level shit, right there.

  9. Yeah, I’m seeing improper deference to Sion Sono in here and I’m fining everybody 5 movie points.

  10. Well, I liked it. There’s a few too many dream sequences and I’m not exactly sure how killing the Governor did fuck-all for the people trapped in the Ghostland, but frankly, after years of horror/horror-adjacent movies nudging me in the ribs with all their might to make sure I know exactly what metaphor they’re going for, I was happy to see a movie that was happy to “just” be a bunch of crazy shit. It did its own thing, and just this once, its own thing wasn’t taking a perfectly serviceable pulp yarn and putting it in a Robitussin coma.

  11. That one is probably the worst way to start into the
    Sonoverse but don’t let it scare you off his other movies cause there are at least three great ones to discover.
    COLD FISH, LOVE EXPOSURE and WHY DON’T YOU PLAY IN HELL.
    I have a question by the way:
    Did they got PRISONERS because of the INCIDENT IN A GHOSTLAND? ;)

  12. I’ve seen ANTIPORNO, LOVE EXPOSURE and COLD FISH. I have no idea what I think about this director. LOVE EXPOSURE is one of my partner’s all time favorite movies and we consequently own it on blu ray. I couldn’t give you an honest appraisal of how I feel about it because there are too many elements that seem custom-made to blind my sensibilities; long stretches of Ravel’s Bolero, operatic monologuing, etc.

    The other two I found nearly unwatchable, but my esteem for them nonetheless grew in retrospect as I considered what they might have been trying to say and accomplish as movies.

  13. Inspector Hammer Boudreaux

    November 19th, 2021 at 10:37 am

    There’s a philosophical quality to Sono’s films, and I think they are absolutely designed to make you think about them later on.

    I like ANTIPORNO a lot. I think it gets at the heart of issues related to women, panties, photography etc… that many of his other films touch on. For those not in the know, Nikkatsu, Japan’s oldest studio, transitioned into making “high-class” porn in the 70s. So called roman porno- roman being short for romantic (At first I imagined 70s Japanese had a thing for gladiators). Anyhow last decade they commissioned a bunch of filmmakers to do contemporary roman pornos. I think the requirements were that you have nudity or a sex scene every ten minutes, then do what you like. Roger Corman style. So within this framework Sono sets out to make antiporno- something that is porno without being porno but still under the porno umbrella. He works to humanize the actress, and he lays out a thesis about women in contemporary Japan- three times he lays it out, in the insincere original, in the forceful reiteration by a real actress, and again with a schoolgirl yelling at us. He thinks that Japanese women are caught in a trap of acting out freedom, without being free. I’m a bit unsettled by his implication that women involved in sex work are necessarily damaged and unhappy, but I’m sure that’s often true. Anyhow, ANTIPORNO has a glossy surface and great depths.

  14. I just have difficult with movies where part of the experience is the intellectual exercise of that you’re supposed to not like it, and interrogating what that means, sort of thing. Don’t play funny games with me, movie! My (female) partner really liked Antiporno and thought its message was cathartic. Sorry for the off topic posts, hi everybody

  15. I wonder if the Governor saying “testicules” is a comment on Americans/Britons/everyone electing morons/monsters to positions of power? You know, probably not, it likely is just supposed to be funny. Hah.
    That’s a good hairpiece (I presume) on Mr Cage.
    “We’ve seen her excel as a dancer, a bodyguard, an alien, a mummy(…)” Well, maybe not as a mummy. *snorts* (Spot the Prince paraphrase there too, win a prize!)

  16. “the world of it reminds me of MAD MAX: BEYOND THUNDERDOME meets SIX STRING SAMURAI, with some imagery leaning more Jodorowsky or Julie Taymor (in strangeness, if not substance)”

    Sold!

    I also love the sound of this idea/imagery: “a bunch of crazies who believe they have to hold ropes tied to the hands of a clocktower clock because if time progresses they will explode.” Like something out of Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol (except in that, they’d be proven right).

  17. SaragossaManuscript

    December 1st, 2021 at 12:09 am

    Sion Sono is probably my favorite filmmaker and it’d be hard to overstate how hyped I was at the prospect of him making a movie with Nic Cage. Watching it on release I kept trying to convince myself it was actually maybe good somehow but in the end I had to admit I pretty much hated it.

    I agree with Jeffrey Brian Patterson’s comment above that Why Don’t You Play In Hell? is probably the ideal first film of Sono’s to check out. His recent Red Post on Escher Street was another fun movie about making movies. My personal favorite for being most affecting when I saw it is Noriko’s Dinner Table.

    I was fortunate enough to see a double feature stateside debut at Japan Society in NYC of The Whispering Star and Love & Peace. The latter has become an xmas traditional rewatch somehow and was one of the most fun times I’ve ever had at the movies.

    Here’s hoping this is the start of a trend of Vern reviewing Sono movies. Prisoners of the Ghostland might be garbage but he has a lot of great stuff in his filmography.

Leave a Reply





XHTML: You can use: <a href="" title=""> <img src=""> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <b> <i> <strike> <em> <strong>