Somewhere in the midst of the last decade, it became cool to like Nicolas Cage again. The actor was more or less a cinematic pariah by the time he transitioned out of headlining underwhelming theatrical features and into totally worthless direct-to-video thrillers — unfairly becoming a poster child for actors no longer engaged by their craft. So when the critical consensus around Cage seemed to shift from utter revulsion to ironic enjoyment to full-throated appreciation, it was like the public had emerged from a bout of cinematic amnesia, as if they had forgotten Cage ranks among the all-time greats. Cage is now just as much of a meme as he is an actor at this point, but he’s nonetheless embraced his status as one of Hollywood’s most fascinating eccentrics by continuing to take on roles that play to his gonzo strengths as a performer.
Prisoners of the Ghostland, which opens in hybrid theatrical / VOD release on Friday, puts Cage in the part of “Hero.” He’s a brooding man-with-no-name bank robber who (prepare yourself) is released from prison by a corrupt governor named … the Governor (a very committed Bill Moseley) and then strapped into a leather suit with small explosives attached to his neck, arms and testicles set to go off if he can’t rescue a kidnapped woman in five days. The Governor rules over a desert wasteland named Samurai Town, which looks like what might happen if the post-apocalyptic gangs from Mad Max decided to open up an amusement park.
Teaming up with director Sion Sono for his first (mostly) English-language debut is the latest example of Cage dabbling in strange, arthouse exploitation. 2018 gave us the shamefully underrated grindhouse horror of Mom and Dad, and a few months later, Cage headlined his best film in years, Mandy. Ghostland, while featuring more than its fair share of ultraviolence, is another beast entirely in terms of tone. Sono is a filmmaker known for mixing playful satire with outrageous gore, and even when one of his movies, like 2001’s Suicide Club, opens with 50 young women throwing themselves in front of a speeding bullet train all at once, the world he’s created is so absurd that the onscreen carnage is more silly than unsettling.
So Cage, who indeed has modeled past performances off of cartoon characters, seems like a natural fit for Sono’s cartoonish antics. And, after watching Prisoners of the Ghostland, this is mostly true. On paper though, this movie packs a premise that makes it sound like one of the greatest films ever made. Or at least one of the most insane. By almost any other standard, Ghostland is pretty wild; as a Sono / Cage collaboration, it’s relatively subdued for a movie that features exploding testicles and Samurai fights. Those hoping for some all-time Cage freakouts will get enough to whet their appetite as well, but those moments are more spaced out than you might expect.
There’s plenty for movie geeks to appreciate in Ghostland: Sono incorporates iconic imagery of Westerns, Samurai films and the Mad Max series to striking effect; Samurai Town is filled with crazed gangs who dress like either cowboys or feudal Japanese warriors. It makes very little sense. But it doesn’t have to make sense. This is Sono’s tribute to those genres, mashing all their tropes together into a kaleidoscopic — and frequently pretty messy — love letter to the movies of his youth.
Unfortunately, all the visual artistry on display can’t hide the fact that narratively this thing tends to drag more often than it soars. The second act here is bogged down by random characters delivering exposition to Cage, and considering the plot makes next to no sense, that gets dull rather quickly. Ghostland should be an easy home run of gory Samurai fights and Western gun-slinging, and there is enough of that to keep you entertained for the majority of the running time, but it still feels like a missed opportunity in the end.
In the film’s Sundance press kit, Ghostland is described as “a sly spoof of the mythical hero’s journey.” The script itself (penned by Aaron Hendry and Reza Sixo Safai) is too impenetrable for any clear thematic statements to come through, but Cage does in fact bring a great deal of humor to his performance, punctuating moments of stoic badassery with shocking displays of weakness. One moment, for example, sees Hero suffer a particularly grievous bodily injury to which he responds by clutching himself, running around in a circle and emitting a high-pitched yelp. Cage frequently subverts the audience’s expectations of our hypermasculine, violent antihero by showing him to be, well, not very heroic at all. He brings a thoughtfulness to this performance that solidifies why Cage remains such a magnetic presence after all these years. You just wish that the story here had that same level of thought put into it as well.