“Prisoners of the Ghostland” is All Style, No Substance [Review]

On paper, the idea of Nicolas Cage in a samurai/western post-apocalyptic world with a bomb strapped to his testicles is a recipe for balls-to-the wall insanity. “Prisoners of the Ghostland” should be a sure fire thrill ride, one that answers the age old question of how much Cage could Nic Cage cage if Nic Cage could Nic Cage (yes, I’m aware I’ve used this play on words before)?

Unfortunately, even with absurd visual director Sion Sono at the helm, and Cage given the green light to do literally whatever he wants with the character, the film never really gets there the way you think it will. “Prisoners of the Ghostland” is all style, no substance, unfolding more like an extended music video than a fully realized feature film. It’s really disappointing, because on premise and cast alone there is just so much promise that is never delivered on.

Make no mistake, this film is batshit insane, both in its visuals and overall execution. It’s hard to really digest with any kind of definitive emotion or ruling, as the film far exceeds the bizarre quota and certainly gives viewers who crave the more absurd section of cinema with plenty to mull over and remember. The biggest issue with “Prisoners of the Ghostland” is that it never really puts all the pieces together in any kind of cohesive or competent way. I’m not entirely versed in Sion Sono filmography, but I do know that he has a knack for the absurd and is often herald as a visually boundary pushing director. While this is clearly an introduction of his bizarre style to western audiences (as “Prisoners of the Ghostland” marks Sion’s English debut) it never really hooks its target audience and gives us a reason to stick with the strange for worthy pay off.

I couldn’t even tell you what “Prisoners of the Ghostland” is actually about. Not that the plot is all that complex or that it’s so nuanced it can’t be described in an elevator pitch. It’s more that what is used to describe the film’s story and plot is never really conveyed within the film and how it unfolds. There’s a lot of IMBD filler needed, as the visuals become more of a Rorschach inkblot than an actual outline of narrative events. This really shouldn’t be the case, because “Prisoners of the Ghostalnd” isn’t all that complicated on paper to begin with. A daring bank robber in a post apocalyptic town botches a job and gets taken hostage but a ruthless tyrant named the Governor (Bill Moseley). He rules Samurai Town, a hybrid mashup of samurai and cowboys who also has a harem of “granddaughters” he clearly uses as sex slaves. Unwilling to get his hands dirty, he “hires” this bank robber to travel into the mysterious wasteland to recover one of his favorites named Bernice (Sofia Boutella), setting a time limit and a suit of bombs that restrict and quell any thoughts of escape. Of course, the Ghostland is a bizarre place and his said to be haunted by a demon, so escape is going to be harder than anticipated.

You see? On paper, it’s pretty straight forward. Anti-hero gets tasked by a villain to recover the damsel from a dangerous territory, has a literal ticking time bomb strapped to his man-bits, discovers there’s more to the land than he thought, and returns to overthrown the villain and bring peace to the galaxy. Unfortunately, none of that is really conveyed in “Prisoners of the Ghostland,” and being told what the movie is about doesn’t actually tell you what the movie that unfolds is about. There are simply too many bizarre moments and characters and non-linear story telling elements that seem to be apart of conflicting ideas, resulting in a fever dream of set pieces and visuals that look great but transpire without context. It has all the foundations of being an “Alice in Wonderland” starring Nicolas Cage kind of vehicle, but instead it feels like Sion Sono dropped a tab of acid and somehow Cage took over his trip, then he fired up the cameras and recreated his visions.

Even as I read that back, this should be way more fun than it actually is. To be fair, Nicolas Cage is giving it his all here. It’s not quite “Mandy,” but there are some glimpses of pure, unadulterated Cage in “Prisoners of the Ghostland.” It’s hard to say I can’t recommend Cage shouting he’ll karate chop his captors, then follow it up by shouting “Hy-fucking-YA!” a few times. Or watching Cage lose it in agony after losing a testicle to a genital bomb. Or Cage strapping a blade to a welded wrist guard/timer then going full John Wick with it while squaring off against Samurai swords. All of these things put the film right on the cusp of greatness, indulging only the briefest of wild and Cage unleashed moments instead of really diving head first into them. I’m all for strangeness, and I like visual driven directors as much as the next person, but there has to be a cohesive, somewhat consumable narrative underneath. One that doesn’t require additional research to fill in the gaps that the film never quite gets there.

There’s a lot to like in “Prisoners of the Ghostland,” and Cage and Soho are almost a match made in heaven. They even have glimpses of greatness, and when the two get to play their strengths is when the movie is at its best. But the film suffers from not having enough of it and having very little else to offer during the interim. There simply isn’t enough happening to justify the strangeness of the visuals, and while it may dazzle for a moment, it becomes fleeting and fizzles out to boredom too quickly. Not that they’re the same but “Squid Game” is a prime example of how to deliver both style AND substance without sacrificing one or the other. The scale and scope and aesthetic is grand and gorgeous, but there’s a lot to care about and invest in even though the details are continuously withheld as it unfolds. “Prisoners of the Ghostland” lacks the latter, unable to give us a reason to really sit through the film as a whole. Instead, we’re just kind of meandering around through the strangeness for few cool moments.

You want more from “Prisoners of the Ghostland” than what’s actually given, and that leaves Cage heads like me disappointed. Again. Look, it’s not “Ju-Jitsu,” but its also not in the upper echelon of Cage vehicles, either.

Rating: 4 out of 10

Prisoners of the Ghostland” is available on Amazon Prime.

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