In 2016 The Hollywood Reporter dubbed Sion Sono “the most subversive filmmaker working in Japanese cinema today”. It’s a title richly earned, given that he’s made some 50 films since he started working in the mid-1980s. Unpredictable, eclectic and irreverent, it was perhaps only a matter of time before he found his way to kindred spirit Nicolas Cage, who has achieved a similar sort of cult status with audiences for his love of guns, gore and log lines that sound like they were scribbled down by someone high on bath salts.
The result of their collaboration is Sono’s first English-language film, Prisoners of the Ghostland, which combines samurai and western iconography to create a post-apocalyptic tale of redemption and uprising. The eponymous Hero (Nicolas Cage) is a ruthless bank robber, sprung from the jailhouse by The Governor (Bill Moseley), who wishes to hire him to retrieve his missing “niece” Bernice (Sofia Boutella) from the radioactive ‘Ghostland’ beyond the safety of the town limits.
In order to ensure Hero does his job, he’s kitted out in a leather jumpsuit with bombs attached to his extremities, including his testicles. While a lesser filmmaker might choose to merely dangle the threat of the testicle bombs in the audience’s face, Sono – as always – fully commits to the promise of ultraviolence.
Although the film was supposed to be shot in the US (which would have made it Sono’s first overseas production) the filmmaker’s heart attack in 2019 caused him to remain in his homeland. Although a decision made out of necessity, it also adds a weight to the recurrent atomic imagery. Outcasts imitate the American concept of the nuclear family, and it is revealed that the Ghostland was the sight of an accident involving radioactive waste. “We called for help,” they tell Hero, but in order to cover up the incident, no one came.
Meanwhile, the bullets fly and swords clash, as East meets West in a sort of Rashomon-Dirty Harry-Mad Max battle royale. The costume and set design is a feast for the eyes, while Cage is clearly enjoying himself as another moody lone ranger beleaguered by violence. It’s not the whackiest Cage performance ever, but it doesn’t have to be in order to be effective; in fact, Prisoners of the Ghostland is a better film as a result of Cage not going too large. It allows Bill Moseley’s villain (dressed all in white and resembling Colonel Sanders in the process) to chew the scenery with aplomb without it feeling like a weird-off.
Although Aaron Hendry and Reza Sixo Safai’s script could use a little finessing, Sono brings it to life with his usual flare, sewing together a strange wonderland populated by superfreaks, zombies and psychos (literally, peep Nick Cassavetes as Cage’s partner-in-crime, Psycho) where the line between reality and fantasy is almost non-existent. Cage gets some choice line deliveries, and playing on his own celebrity, there’s a nice nod to Wild at Heart early on in the form of a subtle Elvis Presley needle drop.
On the subject of music, there’s also a superb fight scene sound tracked so beautifully it’s worth not spoiling here. While purists might grumble that Prisoners of the Ghostland is not as bold or ‘out there’ as Sono’s previous work, it is an excellent introduction to the director for anyone who hasn’t dipped into his filmography. And Cage? It’s another solid, snarling turn from the hardest working action man in Hollywood.
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