Review by Jonathan W. Hickman
Only an actor of Nicolas Cage’s notorious stature could star one of the best and one of the worst films of the year. Guess which one “Prisoners of the Ghostland” is?
I want everyone reading this review to make time to watch Cage in “Pig.” That little film might net him an Oscar nomination. His elegant restraint is matched by that director’s skill in holding him back. It was the restriction on Cage’s often unhinged persona that contrasted so beautifully in “Pig.”
In “Prisoners of the Ghostland,” Cage is merely an afterthought. He’s crazy, sure, but not crazy enough. The movie’s production design is so bonkers that not even Cage and his loony side could compete. But if edgy cult Japanese director Sion Sono had pushed Cage to the limit, this movie might have been a delicious exercise in excess. Unfortunately, it’s like a parody that isn’t funny.
The story is mainly one-note. The Governor (Bill Moseley), the powerbroker, strongman leader of a place called Samurai Town, springs a bank robber (Cage) from the slammer to rescue his adopted granddaughter named Bernice (Sofia Boutella). The woman has been kidnapped in a dangerous place called the Ghostland.
Cage’s bank robber is rolled out wearing a cloth diaper and later dressed in a black leather jumpsuit. After Cage dons the tight-fitting custom getup, he learns that it’s rigged with explosives. Attempting a twist on “Escape from New York,” the explosive devices are strategically located on various parts of his body. Things will go boom in 5 days if he doesn’t bring home The Governor’s granddaughter.
We get some early fun when our hero is told that two explosives are covering his genitals. If he tries to get frisky with Bernice, those bombs will go off. This dangerous contraption is just one of the many absurdities that should be delightful highlights but fail to resonate fully.
When our hero leaves the colorful and utterly weird Samurai Town compound, he’s almost immediately at his destination. “Prisoners of the Ghostland” makes no effort to be coherent, embracing irrationality expecting us to be on its wavelength. And indeed, there are people tuned into this film’s static; I just never felt it.
“Prisoners of the Ghostland” got its world premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. There’s no question that early favorable reviews reflected the counterprogramming associated with playing such a prestigious festival that is traditionally jam-packed with indie darlings that espouse socially essential messages.
But examined away from the hype and intellectual acrobatics that attempt to paint “Ghostland” as a significant cultural event, the film just isn’t very good. Viewers can get bizarro filmmaking that also contains a coherent narrative elsewhere.