by Jordan King
Shortly before director Sion Sono was due to begin the shoot for Prisoners of the Ghostland in Mexico, the Japanese director and self-proclaimed ‘poet who films [his] poetry’ had a heart attack, spending a full minute technically dead. After being brought back from the great beyond, for obvious medical reasons filming couldn’t take place in Mexico, and so Prisoners of the Ghostland, a film that only loosely could be narrowed down to the Spaghetti Western genre at a push, moved production East and found a new home in Sono’s own beloved Japan. The result of Sono’s spiritual migration and the film’s geographic translocation is seemingly Sono’s attempt to make up for that minute of lost heartbeats by providing 100 minutes of pulsating pure lunacy.
Sono’s first English language feature, directed from a gonzo script by Aaron Hendry and Reza Sixo Safai, Prisoners of the Ghostland sees Nicolas Cage, in possibly his most unpredictable performance to date, play Hero. Jailed for a bank robbery gone awry years before, Hero is freed from jail by warlord The Governer (Bill Moseley) on condition that he finds and brings home his granddaughter Bernice (Sofia Boutella), who has gone missing. Dressed like a biker dad coming back hot from a mid-life crisis and covered in laser tag targets that may or may not blow up his left nutsack and other appendages based on his ability to save Boutella’s Bernice, Cage’s in-demand criminal Hero (whose hero, one would presume, must be Nicolas Cage) coolly kills and forges a path of redemption all the way through the awesomely designed futuristic frontier known as Samurai Town.
Redemption story. Revenge saga. Slash-em-up. Sci-fi Samurai Western. Ultraviolent comedy. Pop art acid trip. What exactly Sion Sono’s Prisoners of the Ghostland is is hard to say. What we do know, however, is that in one minute Cage screams TESTI-CALLLLLLLL! and in the next he sombrely quotes Hamlet to a crash helmet, and neither of those things feel remotely out of place or actually even silly in context of Sono’s wild, wildly ambitious work here. In truth, any film that has characters with names like Rat Man, that has samurai, ghosts, cyborgs, cyberpunk junkyards, traditional temples, nuclear explosions, and a slow-motion sequence in which the sight of a gumball machine shattering in an eruption of glass and colour that is legitimately emotionally powerful is going to be hard to define, explain, or discuss easily.
Prisoners of the Ghostland has licks of Tarantino, lashings of Besson, hints of Kurosawa, longings for the grandiosity of Leone, and an apocalyptic vision that seems to place Samurai Town somewhere just a little off to the left of Fury Road. For all of its referential touchpoints however, this is a piece of art that none of those esteemed filmmakers would ever dare dream of creating. Prisoners of the Ghostland is the product of that old adage that necessity is he mother of invention, with the film’s move from a Mexican setting to a Japanese one opening up a cultural collaboration that takes in subtexts as strong as Japan’s nuclear anxiety post-Hiroshima (one of the film’s many subplots centres around a group’s desperate attempts to stop the time from reaching 8:15, which is when the H-bomb hit Hiroshima, by literally pulling the hands of a huge clock), and also allows for the spiritual symmetry between the Western and Samurai genres to be explored both thematically and aesthetically in eye-catching ways we have never seen before.
Over fifty films deep into his oeuvre, Sion Sono has it would seem made fifty films in one here, giving the keys to his creative kingdom to a recently rejuvenated and simply extraordinary Nicolas Cage, who says, does, and expresses things in this film that may never have been seen on film before and may yet never be seen again.
With stunning, dynamic cinematography, a genre-hopping and sweeping Joe Trapanese score, and an aesthetic and tone that takes silliness seriously and seriousness with a pinch of silly, Sono’s Prisoners of the Ghostland is an absurd yet supremely entertaining and technically accomplished film that in uniting Sono and Cage may well have just formed a tag-team that could either take on the world or wantonly destroy it depending on how they feel at the time.
This film is fucking crazy, kind of ridiculous, but absolutely unforgettable and truly impressive.