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Ever since his late ‘90s heyday when he swapped chins with John Travolta in Face/Off and grew a mullet to take on John Malkovich in Con Air, Nicolas Cage has been trading off his reputation as an actor capable of delivering his own special brand of crazy to the screen.
The past five years though have seen him kick the crazy into high gear with a string of gloriously inventive movies that have one thing in common: Cage, front and center, losing his shit. Mom and Dad, Mandy, Color Out of Space, and Willy’s Wonderland have been the notable highlights in a recent run of films that have otherwise been consigned to the realm of forgettable direct-to-video releases.
The good news is that Prisoners of the Ghostland falls firmly into the former category with Cage delivering the kind of unhinged performance fans have come to expect in what amounts to an enjoyably eclectic slice of gonzo action cinema.
Plot-wise, the film borrows heavily from a few familiar big hitters: Escape from New York meets Mad Max with a dash of Kill Bill thrown in for good measure. Cage plays Hero, a criminal incarcerated after a bank robbery gone wrong, who ends up being sprung from jail by a local warlord known as The General (Bill Moseley) and tasked with tracking down his adopted granddaughter Bernice (Sofia Boutella).
Here comes the real kicker though: to ensure Hero is suitably incentivized, The General has decked him out in a leather suit designed to self-destruct if he doesn’t return with her in five days. To make matters worse, he must travel into the Ghostland, an irradiated wasteland populated by half-crazed outcasts. Oh, and his testicles have been hooked up to explosives too.
Prisoners of the Ghostland is at its best when Cage is let off the leash to run riot across the screen as our reluctant hero. It’s a film brimming with ideas, albeit not all entirely original, littered with striking visuals and some excellent action set-pieces.
Cage is wild-eyed and ready for action throughout, dominating every scene he’s in, but Boutella also deserves credit as his suitably subdued onscreen foil. Moseley as the film’s big bad does some fine work, although he’s almost upstaged by Nick Cassavetes in fine villainous form as Hero’s old partner in crime, Psycho.
Prisoners of the Ghostland pulls no punches when it comes to delivering bloody and occasionally eye-popping action but the story undoubtedly drags a little once Hero establishes himself in the world of the Ghostland, but thankfully things are soon back on track as the film moves into its final act.
Sion Sono made his name in Japan as a filmmaker famed for his subversive work and plenty of that is on display here. Unfortunately, there’s almost too much on display, with a movie so full of ideas, some often get lost in the shuffle.
A subplot involving Tak Sakaguchi’s Yasujiro, who serves as a reluctant samurai bodyguard to The General and who holds his sister captive, feels worthy of its own movie and forms the basis of one of the film’s best fight scenes. It nonetheless winds up feeling almost superfluous to the main plot.
Meanwhile, the decision to set the film in the fictional world of Samurai Town, where Japanese society blends with elements of the American West, feels like an excuse to have people fighting with guns and samurai swords. Although that’s not necessarily a bad thing.Sono still fills the frame with enough eye-catching imagery which when combined with the movie’s larger-than-life performances help paper over any cracks created by the occasionally inconsistent plot and pacing.
Make no mistake: Prisoners of the Ghostland is essential viewing for anyone with a love for Cage and his considerable on-screen charms. The craziness isn’t just restricted to the film’s star either, with the movie’s deranged plot, outlandish characters and occasionally visceral gore likely to provide enough talking points after the credits have rolled to make this a movie worth watching.
It’s not always pretty and far from perfect, but there’s an undeniable method to Sono and Cage’s madness. Strange, surreal but, crucially, lots of fun.
Prisoners of the Ghostland is out in theaters and on VOD today in the U.S. and UK.