There’s such a huge mix of genres in Prisoners of the Ghostland (2021) that it’d almost be easier to name one that doesn’t show up, Sion Sono’s latest offering blending elements of sci-fi, Westerns, Samurai epics, neo-noir dramas, post-apocalyptic thrillers, and even horror. It’s a bold choice that you can’t help being impressed by, this bizarre mish-mash of styles meaning you’re never quite sure what to expect as the story unravels. Yet as wonderfully weird as this genre-crossing film is, there’s often so much going on here that the plot becomes a bit of a confusing mess, the narrative sagging under the weight of its many ideas and turning what should be an entertaining, funny watch into a bit of a chore. And I for one never thought I’d say that about a film in which bombs are strapped to Nicolas Cage’s testicles…
What did Cage’s character do to land himself in such hot water you ask? Well, after a bank robbery gone wrong lands him a lengthy stint in prison, the Governor (Bill Moseley) of this strange near-future land decides this convict is the perfect person to send into the wild to find his runaway adopted Granddaughter Bernice (Sofia Boutella). And a suit lined with explosives is exactly the type of gentle persuasion that will help the reluctant Hero (that’s literally Cage’s character name) complete his task in three days. It’s a unique, out-there concept, and one that has all the markings of a bombastic, gory action thriller. What’s surprising then is how little Prisoners fails to deliver on this easy promise, Aaron Hendry and Reza Sixo Safai’s script often moving so quickly from scene to scene that the tension is never given a chance to build into anything exciting. Take the whole opening sequence, in which Hero squares up to the local residents of Samurai Town, swords and guns drawn as Cage sneers at them in only a way he can. It’s a great start and one in which we’re waiting with baited breath to see what Hero will do to scatter the assembled crowd. And sadly the answer is…nothing, Hero simply accepting his fate before riding into the horizon on a stolen bicycle – a genuinely hilarious moment, but one that ultimately falls flat after we’ve been teased with such a potentially explosive scenario. While it’s true that Sono does break out the big guns (literally) in the last twenty minutes for an impressive, bloody finale, there’s so many directionless scenes before this that our interest is long gone by then, even the sight of Hero finally getting to unleash his rage on some unsuspecting townsfolk not enough to satisfy us.
There are redeeming features to Prisoners that will reward your curiosity though. The production design is absolutely exquisite, each new set piece in this bizarre post-apocalyptic world more extravagant and weird than the last. From a bank filled with neon-colours, to a dusty town featuring both Western and Samurai styles, to a Mad Max-like nuclear wasteland filled with living mannequins (as horrifying as it sounds), all of it is wonderful to see come alive onscreen, every moment looking gorgeous thanks to Sono’s vibrant and striking direction. There’s also a clever mix of the old and new that makes the setting of the story particularly intriguing, mobile phones, flashing neon signs and fast sports cars oddly out of place amongst the saloons, Geisha bars and barren landscapes. It’s an aesthetic reflected in Joseph Trapanese’s excellent score too, which blends twangy Old West guitar music with electronic sci-fi beats to great effect, creating a truly unique sound that perfectly fits this surreal futuristic environment.
Of course, the main reason many will want to watch this is to see Cage doing what Cage does best – turn up in strange films in all his wide-eyed, manic glory. And he certainly doesn’t disappoint, leaving all traces of subtly behind to deliver a usual OTT performance, coming out with some insane one-liners and often just yelling for no reason (there’s an incredibly funny moment of him screaming “TESTICLE!” at the top of his lungs). As amusing as Cage is though, it’s the brilliant Sofia Boutella who is the standout here, her oddly touching portrayal as Bernice actually giving some gravity to the craziness going on. She also gets to do some damage with a Samurai sword during a fight sequence that displays her incredible balletic dance moves, despite the scene being over with far too quickly. Indeed, she’s sadly underused for a lot for this – a shame as her journey from mute, mistreated woman to revenge-seeking badass is one of the most interesting parts of Prisoner’s narrative. The same goes for Tak Sakaguchi, whose Samurai character is barely given any screen time, an intriguing plot strand about him preserving his sister’s life by working as the Governor’s bodyguard sadly unexplored. It’s elements like this that prove there really is a compelling story buried within Prisoners. But with the focus on Cage and the wacky set pieces, we never get to see it.
On paper, Prisoners has all the makings of a cult classic. A director known for his outlandish, distinctive work. A crazy plot and a weirder setting. Nicolas Cage doing what Nicolas Cage does best. So it’s such a surprise that this misses the mark on all counts, the result a drag that’s almost completely devoid of fun. With a script that throws so much at it to see what sticks, and a story that doesn’t go anywhere, it never feels like a cohesive whole, our interest waning even with the addition of those wonderful set pieces. Indeed, there are moments of genius here, but you have to really search for them amongst all the other nonsense going on. A huge shame.