Sundance Review: Prisoners of the Ghostland

Cage/Sono styles clash in underwhelming cowboy/ronin/gangster film

The Western and the samurai film have always locked step. The ronin and the gunslinger are two sides of the same coin, and so there has long been interplay between the two genres, of licensed and unlicensed remakes. Seven Samurai became The Magnificent Seven, Unforgiven became Yurusarezaru mono.

But there's also been a substrand of Western-jidaigeki fusion films: normally post-apocalyptic, always deliberately quirky, they've generally been small affairs like Six String Samurai or Kurando Mitsutake's Samurai Avenger. Artistically, they may have peaked with the gorgeous but now all-but-forgotten Bunraku, and even its all-star cast of Josh Hartnett, Demi Moore, and Wood Harrelson (hey, it was 2010) couldn't save it from being just too strange for general audiences.

Now the wildly prolific master of the odd Sion Sono (Suicide Club, Why Don't You Play in Hell?, Love Exposure) resurrects the subgenre, and of course he would for his first English-language film. It's such an obvious fusion for his deliciously overblown approach to storytelling that it almost seems like a hackneyed pitch - something of which Sono can never really be accused. His films are an explosion of ideas and subplots, thrilling characters and innovative scenarios. Which makes it oddly disappointing that Prisoners of the Ghostland is so underwhelming.

It's Sono's bloody and madcap remix of classic British post-apocalyptic satire The Bed Sitting Room. Richard Lester's all-star misfire seemed such an obvious hit on paper (how could a film with Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Michael Hordern Ralph Richardson, Rita Tushingham, Marty Feldman and most of the stars of the era-defining The Goon Show fail?) but that never really coalesced into an actual film. And so it goes with Prisoners. In what should be a perfect pairing, Sono casts Nicolas Cage as Hero, a bank robber first shown during a botched heist. Yet this is merely set-up to put him in jail for years in a city that is half Kyoto's historic Gion district, half Boot Hill backlot. All the men are either sword-wielding warriors or six-shooter-packing gunsels, all the women are geishas. Everything is ruled by the Governor (Bill Moseley), whose granddaughter has run away (Sofia Boutella) has run away from his lascivious clutches. Now she is lost in the wilds of the Ghostland, a mix of Mad Max threats who may or may not be literal ghosts, and a community of wayward souls scrabbling in the wreckage of a city engaged in absurd tasks. Find her, Hero is told, and regain your freedom. To ensure his compliance, Hero is sealed into a black leather body suit, with explosive devices placed at strategic locations to ensure he completes the task in a timely way, and off he trots into the wilderness.

If that sounds oddly complicated, that's because it is. Normally, that wouldn't be an issue for Sono, who overstuffed 2015 cult favorite Tokyo Tribe to bursting seams but managed to be both visually and emotionally engaging. Prisoners of the Ghostland is as gorgeous as anything else Sono has shot. Take that opening heist: Cage is dressed in a suit that both evokes Tarantino-esque gangsters and classic 1960s Japanese mob movies. He enters a pristine-white lobby, with all the customers in bright colors, for a moment that could have fallen straight out of a beatnik-influenced "Mighty Guy" style cool action flick. Other characters enter to stylized sing-song accompaniment, while his wilderness is scattered with striking imagery, like a team of men trying to literally hold back the passage of time with a rope tied to a giant clock hand.

But where Sono falls hard is in having anything new to say with with his striking imagery. For a film that should be so unique, it's hard not to see the nods to The Running Man, or Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, or Armageddon classic Ridley Walker. They may not be deliberate, but they're so clear that Prisoners can never escape their specters.

It's not just about expecting more from Sono. It's that Prisoners is uneven. Cage and the director are both stylistically-driven artists, and there's a surprising disconnect in which, in a rare experience, Cage seems smaller than the film. Moseley seems to gel much better with the material, while Sono regular Tak Sakaguchi is stuck in a thankless dead-end part as the Governor's chief enforcer, Yasujiro.

Ultimately, Prisoners of the Ghostland is an OK film by a great filmmaker who has made truly great films, most memorable for its cast and the fact he finally made an English-language movie. Yet, when what's noteworthy about a film is just that it exists, it's more a vapor than an actual phantom.

Prisoners of the Ghostland
World Premiere
Sundance Film Festival 2021

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Sundance Film Festival, Sion Sono, Nicolas Cage, Bill Moseley, Tak Sakaguchi, Sofia Boutella

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