There’s a moment in Prisoners Of The Ghostland, Japanese director Sion Sono’s gonzo East-meets-Western, where Nic Cage gets his nuts blown off. Fortunately one little Nic survives, and Cage’s surprisingly unfazed character is back on his feet lickety-split, but it’s a noteworthy moment because: a) how many films have you see where the hero’s balls are blown up? and b) it’s approximately the 17th strangest thing that happens in Prisoners of the Ghostland, a film so unhinged it makes Cage’s average output look like a regency drama.
Cage stars as Hero, a notorious felon who’s been in a cell ever since a bank robbery gone wrong resulted in the death of half a dozen innocent bystanders, including a gumball masticating boy whose murder haunts Hero. Half a life sentence later, Hero is sprung by The Governor (Bill Moseley), an imitation Colonel Sanders who now holds Samurai Town under an iron grip. The Governor offers Hero a deal – rescue his beloved Bernice (a game Sofia Boutella) from the Ghostland and walk away with his freedom. There’s one catch: to stop him from absconding or hurting Bernice, Hero is rigged with explosives, and with the clock ticking Hero’s nuts are literally on the line.
It’s a strange opening gambit, for sure, but Sono’s singular vision is defiantly demented to the last. Cage has made his fair share of oddball movies in recent years – some (Mandy, Color Out Of Space) more successful than others (pretty much everything else) – but in Sono he may have found a soulmate, a filmmaker so attuned to his weirdo wavelength you’ll be cursing the fact it took the pair this long to collaborate. While production and costume design owes a significant debt to Mad Max, and the setup is lifted wholesale from John Carptenter’s Escape From New York, the pairing has produced a uniquely barmy apocalyptic vision.
Hero finds Bernice almost instantly – one of the many ways the script resolutely refuses to take the expected route – but soon learns that once someone enters the Ghostland, they never leave. The Ghostland itself is an impressive bit of set design with a central square built around a steam-powered clock tower that keeps the town and its peculiar denizens frozen in time. Constructed on irradiated earth, the Ghostland is guarded by a spectral prison bus full of nuclear mutants that materialises whenever anyone tries to escape. In the film’s only sincere attempt at real-world relevance over off-the-wall lunacy, Japan’s horrifying nuclear history is consciously reflected in the film’s forsaken wasteland.
But before there’s any risk of the film taking itself too seriously, Hero is having a katana grafted to his arm to battle cowboys, samurai, and any other carnival character that happens to walk into frame. It’s unabashed B-movie madness, and everyone involved is in on the joke, including Cage who’s usually the punchline. At one point he bellows the word ‘testicle’ in a manner that can only be described as life-changing. Sono doesn’t so much as unleash Cage here, as construct an entire playground around him, and fine-tune it to his bizarre sensibilities.
There’s much that might traditionally be considered shortcomings, like the non-existent character development, obvious use of stunt doubles for generally underwhelming fight sequences, laughably flowery dialogue ("They say you’re a veritable phantasm"), and the just-go-with-it fusion of Eastern and Western cultures; but typical criticisms scarcely apply here. Prisoners of the Ghostland exists entirely outside the norms and conventions of moviemaking. Really there’s only one word to describe it: nuts.
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