Sion Sono’s created some of my favourite films, often tackling subjects which might seem odd or downright unpleasant but weaving quite fascinating tales which play with a lot of intelligent ideas. Visually his work is often quite stunning as well, and he’s responsible for some incredibly memorable sequences, such as the shocking opening to Suicide Club and the bizarre but lovable giant turtle in Love & Peace, and he’s a rare example of a filmmaker where I want to see everything he creates.
Prisoners Of The Ghostland is his (mostly) English language debut, though in fact about a quarter of the film is in Japanese, and it stars Nicolas Cage, an actor I’ve loved for a long old time. So the idea of them working together led to high expectations, and perhaps it’s due to that I was disappointed by this, though I’m not convinced many would find this a particularly original work even if they’d never seen any films involving either, and that’s quite surprising given how innovative Sono normally is.
It’s a post apocalyptic western with a quirky sense of humour as a bank robbery at the beginning involving Cage’s unnamed protagonist (who is only ever referred to as “Hero”) and his partner Pyscho (Nick Cassavetes) turns in to a bloodbath. Then it leaps forward to Cage having been imprisoned for many years, not that this is initially clear, when he’s offered his freedom by The Governor (Bill Moseley) if he tracks down and recovers his granddaughter, though we soon learn that The Governor is lying and she’s just one of the many prostitutes he’s forcing to work for him.
In the first half an hour it’s deliberately funny and offbeat and scenes where Cage is seen naked and mocked by a group of women, before driving off in a flashy car yet suddenly ditching it for a bicycle, and a pretty crappy one at that, are very funny indeed. To stop Cage from buggering off and not fulfilling his mission he’s been forced to wear a leather suit which has several explosives placed on it, and without giving too much away if you’re male you probably will find yourself wincing a hell of a lot during one scene, but it is still hard not to laugh at Cage’s reaction.
As the movie hits the halfway mark it doesn’t seem to quite know what it wants to be however, and it hits a dull groove which it fails to recover from, while Cage’s performance is quite over the top even by his standards, but it feels cartoony rather than believable and it lacks the nuance he recently showed so well in Pig. We spend an awful lot of time with those who had captured the missing woman, who goes from a silent mute who wants nothing to do with Hero to adoring him in a strange shift which isn’t ever quite explained, and the various characters in Ghostland are a quirky sort, some very odd but rarely entertaining, and the film then forgets about them in the final act.
That final third act is one large action sequence as Hero returns with the girl, but it largely plays out exactly how you’d imagine it would, the imagery is less captivating and the violence lacks imagination. The Governor is a pantomime villain and quickly becomes annoying, and its a film packed with characters which are far less witty and entertaining than the film thinks they are. It’s not a disaster, but it’s definitely the weakest film I’ve seen from Sono, and only those who have never seen a slice of post apocalyptic violence might be entertained.