Prisoners of the Ghostland is a bore. “A bore” is the best phrase to describe it because describing it as “junk” would seem like a compliment to its marketing team. But it’s not junk, it’s a film that aspires to be junk… and fails. It wants to be Shogun Assassin (1980) or Seven Blows of the Dragon (1972), but it’s barely above Plan 9 from Outer Space (1957). That it currently has a 75% “Fresh” score (based on 77 reviews!) on Rotten Tomatoes is truly astonishing. Are critics really impressed by lazy, contemptuous nonsense like this?
The “plot” doesn’t make much sense, but there’s a basic thread one can follow, if only because you’ve seen the tropes before. Hero (Nicolas Cage) is an incarcerated bank robber who’s offered his freedom by The Governor (Bill Moseley), but only if he retrieves one of three escaped brides from his harem, Bernice (Sofia Boutella). The catch is that Hero’s fitted with bombs attached to his throat, arms, and testicles, to prevent him from harming Bernice or reneging on the deal.
Cage’s character simply being called Hero is one of many elements which are no doubt intended to seem clever and self-aware. The visual aesthetic is a loose mishmash of western and samurai film cliches. When Hero leaves The Governor’s territory he arrives in the titular ‘Ghostland’, a post-apocalyptic prairie town dominated by the skeleton of a clocktower. Traumatised people are encased in glued-together bits of a mannequin, apparently to protect them from something or other, though it’s hard to care since it’s clearly just nonsense to make the film seem artier/odder than it is. Ghostland looks less like a haunted place of survival and more like a leftover set from Back to the Future Part III (1990).
Elsewhere, we get lots of kabuki masks, kimonos, a paper-lanterned harem, and a light drizzle of petals from the Akebono cherry tree. No sense of an authentic time or place or community is evoked by the film, though Ghostland is slightly more memorable than The Governor’s own turf—which, with its vaguely western-themed storefronts and Edo period props, looks like the main street at a clapboard roadside theme park.
The characters are drawn and played in such enervated style they barely seem like stereotypes, let alone flesh-and-blood creations. Films like this are known for exploiting basic elements for audience recognition. That’s why they’re called exploitation films. But the point is supposed to be that in exploiting those elements the characters become larger than life. Nobody in real life is much like Bruce Lee as depicted in Fist of Fury (1972) or Enter the Dragon (1973), and that’s the idea. He’s more exciting than anyone in real life. The characters in Ghostland, on the other hand, are less exciting than whatever personalities a couple of kids playing with action figures could give them.
Why is this? It’s because they don’t have personalities. They’re mere references to tropes. The Governor is arrogant. Bernie is a traumatised survivor. Hero seems like a bad guy but becomes a good guy, a la Mad Max. (Ugh, even mentioning George Miller’s iconic film series in a review of Ghostland feels like sacrilege, on the level of screaming passages from The Satanic Bible in Canterbury Cathedral.) They all never seem like anything more than ideas for characters. You don’t ask that the heroes and villains in a movie like this be complex. You do ask that they be fun to watch.
The acting doesn’t help. At least one review of this film refers to Nicolas Cage’s acting as “high-spirited”. It’s not. It is, in fact, the opposite of high-spirited. It’s marginally better than his performance in Willy’s Wonderland (2021)—another pseudo-cult, post-post-grindhouse crap-fest—because at least here he bothers to speak. Though not much. He’ll sometimes give a weird inflexion to a word, or a line delivery that accentuates the stupid dialogue in a way that makes one wonder if he’s trying to play the role comedically. But it’s not consistent at all, and feels like he’s giving the bare minimum of what he knows the audience expects from him.
At this point, critics should know better than to praise Cage for this type of “performance”. If you want to see what he can do in a smart exploitation film, where he has some respect for the material, go watch Kick-Ass (2010) again. The verbal tics and physical mannerisms are there, but they’re used consistently, in service of creating a memorable character. You still vividly remember his Big Daddy from Kick-Ass 11 years later, from his staring eyes to his hacking laugh, and weird affectations of speech (“take cover, child!”) You’ll struggle to remember anything about Hero tomorrow.
Bill Moseley is terrible as The Governor. There’s no other way to put it. He’s so bad that you wonder what you’ve seen him in before. Since it’s likely if you’re watching Ghostland that you’ve seen him in something, and can’t recall him being this incompetent. Turns out, he was in Rob Zombie’s Firefly trilogy of House of 1000 Corpses (2003), The Devil’s Rejects (2005), and 3 from Hell (2019). He was okay there, but then he had an actual character to work with. He was also Chop Top in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre 2 (1986).
It’s not clear whether The Governor’s supposed to be menacing or funny. He’s probably meant to be either/or at different times, but he’s always just sad. He struts about like a cross between Colonel Sanders and John Huston in Chinatown (1974) in his white cowboy suit, having perverted intentions with young women. The way Moseley plays him, though, it’s an impression of an impression. As if he once saw a parody of a character like the one he’s been handed and is failing to emulate that. To be fair to the guy, it’s not like he’s been given anything to work with. However, he also doesn’t have any presence. I’ve seen kiddie movies where the moustache-twirling property developer (“oh no, Meanie McBadMan’s going to tear down the forest and replace it with condos!”) had more resonance. Boutella doesn’t annoy or make you feel embarrassed for her, and that’s about all that can be said. Nick Cassavetes does maybe 15-minutes’ work as Cage’s criminal partner, Psycho, yet gives far and away the best performance. It’s nothing special, but you do believe in him.
Japanese actor and fight choreographer Tak Sakaguchi plays Yasujiro, one of The Governor’s goons, who’s given a hint of motivation at one point (something about a sister in his boss’ harem), but nothing comes of it. Sakaguchi’s choreographic expertise is wasted in flat, unimaginative fight scenes. He does, however, provide the one thing I liked about Prisoners of the Ghostland. In one scene, he gets into a fight with his fellow goons and kills one by attaching him to a paper lantern with a samurai sword, so that the man’s blood spray fills the lantern. It’s a neat gore shot, funny in how it suggests the practical cleanliness of killing someone in such a fashion. No blood on the drapes to grapple with, just dispose of the lantern and you’re done!
Other than that, there’s an early scene with a semi-nude Cage which makes you realise what a great body he has for a 57-year-old man. If you feel that the one gore shot is worth your time and money, or you want to lech over Cage but don’t have access to Google Images for some reason, have a blast. Just bring a book for the rest of the film.
USA • JAPAN | 2021 | 103 MINUTES | 2.35:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
Cast & Crew
director: Sion Sono.
writers: Aaron Hendry & Reza Sixo Safai.
starring: Nicolas Cage, Sofia Boutella, Bill Moseley, Nick Cassavetes & Tak Sakaguchi.