Post-apocalyptic action film lets the actor say overwrought things but isn’t campy enough to be camp.
The poster for “Prisoners of the Ghostland” features a steely-eyed, bruised and battered Nicolas Cage and the quote:
“THE WILDEST MOVIE I’VE MADE” – Nicolas Cage
I’m not sure I’ve ever seen an actor blurb his own movie, but we’re talking about Nicolas Cage here and nothing surprises us anymore — but given Cage’s track record of churning out bizarro B-movies such as “Color Out of Space” and “Willy’s Wonderland” and “The Wicker Man” and “Mandy” and we’re just getting started — is “Prisoners of the Ghostland” really the wildest movie he’s ever made?
I’d put it in the Top 5 for sure, but that statement by Cage turns out to be more of threat than a promise, as “Prisoners of the Ghostland” is an “Escape From New York”-meets-“Mad Max” ripoff that desperately wants to be a bonkers, midnight drive-in cult classic but doesn’t have the camp value or the memorably off-the-wall storyline to make the cut.
Directed by the veteran Japanese creator-of-chaos Sion Sono, “Prisoners of the Ghostland” is a Samurai Western set in the obligatory post-apocalyptic future, where Cage’s Hero (that’s his character’s name) has been imprisoned for years for his part in a bank robbery that turned into a horrific bloodbath. Hero is dragged from his cell and paraded onto the Main Street of Samurai Town, where the men wear cowboy hats and are armed with guns and swords, and dozens of heckling geishas are crowded into holding cells. Bill Moseley, clad in all-white suit with red gloves and speaking in an exaggerated drawl that makes him sound like the latest character actor playing Colonel Sanders, is the Governor, who informs Hero he’s “the man to do the job” of venturing into the vast wasteland known as Ghostland to retrieve his granddaughter Bernice (Sofia Boutella), who has disappeared without a trace.
The Governor outfits Hero with a black leather suit equipped with explosive charges on his arms, around his neck and on his crotch. If Hero tries to escape or has impure thoughts about Bernice or thinks of doing her harm, boom goes the dynamite. If he manages to find Bernice and bring her back safe, he wins his freedom. Good luck, Hero!
Sono and the production design team have created some visually arresting and elaborate sets: from the bombed-out, theme-park look of Samurai Town to the strange and haunting world of Ghostland (which looks like something even Terry Gilliam might deem over the top); to bizarrely costumed dancers; to the apparently imprisoned women who are covered from head to toe with pieces of mannequins; to the steampunk structures. There are sporadic bursts of violence — let’s just say Hero doesn’t emerge from his quest with all parts intact — and Cage sinks his teeth into every piece of overwrought dialogue, but there’s virtually no story here.
The wonderful Sofia Boutella (seen earlier this year in ANOTHER post-apocalyptic mediocrity, “Settlers”) is criminally underused and is mostly window dressing to be dragged around by Hero.
“Prisoners of the Ghostland” ends in predictable fashion, with an orgy of violence — but the motivations of certain key characters seem to shift with the wind.
If you want to spend some time with a 2021 Nicolas Cage vehicle, please check out “Pig,” which despite that odd title is actually one of the best films of the year and serves as reminder of how great Cage can be with the right material.