Prisoners of the Ghostland (2020)

Nick Cassavetes and Nicolas Cage appear in “Prisoners of the Ghostland” by Sion Sono, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

May I suggest an alternate title for the new Nicolas Cage film? “Willy Wonka’s Fury Road Kills Bill in Little China While Escaping from New York.” Japanese filmmaker Sion Sono makes his English language debut after 50-plus films with “Prisoners of the Ghostland” featuring Cage as our antihero sent into the wasteland to retrieve the adult granddaughter (Sofia Boutella) of the film’s baddie (Bill Moseley) before time runs out and his new leather outfit goes KABOOM! Now don’t call him “Snake” — because it’s taken, and Cage’s character has no name — he is simply known as Hero. For some this film will be loads of fun, for others, it will be more grueling than Hero’s mission, and he loses a testicle.

Sono is known as “the most subversive filmmaker working in Japanese cinema today” while Cage has a nice reputation for also going against the grain, so why did it take so long for these two to come together? “Prisoners” is exactly what you’d expect from the director-actor collaboration and yet it is unlike anything you could ever conceive.

The setting is the treacherous frontier city, Samurai Town, where Cage and Nick Cassavetes reunite in what could be a “Face Off” sequel with Castor Troy and Dietrich Hassler teaming up once again to rob a bank — just forget about that whole spear gun impaling at the end of John Woo’s 1997 film.

The robbery gets complicated by a child and a gumball machine landing Cage in prison for his crime. He’s given a shot at freedom by the sleazy bad guy that runs Samurai Town, the Governor (Bill Moseley) whose white suit, cowboy hat, and boots make a fashion statement — Big Enos Burdette meets Colonel Sanders.

Cage’s character Hero has three days to venture into the desert wasteland known as Ghostland to find the Governor’s granddaughter Bernice (Sofia Boutella from “Climax”) and bring her back unharmed in order to gain his freedom. As an added incentive, Hero’s nice new black leather outfit is equipped with several explosives armed to go off if he should try to either harm or have sex with Bernice.

Hero is given a new Toyota to complete his mission (although he prefers a bicycle with a basket) and so begins the whacked-out journey that includes nuclear specters, samurais, a bookworm, and the expected poor downtrodden members of society living in a post-apocalyptic desert landscape.

Working from a gonzo script by Aaron Hendry and Reza Sixo Safai, Cage is always entertaining to watch and over the course of the 103-minute run time, you’ll encounter neon cowboys, traditional geishas, samurai swordsman, and an off-the-wall musical number set to Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle.” None of it makes sense, but there is a nice finale that lets Cage go mano a mano with martial artist-actor Tak Sakaguchi and a slew of bad guys.

In one scene during the climax, Bernice gets her hands on a samurai sword and is instantly transformed into Black Mamba minus the yellow jumpsuit. It’s a shame that Boutella didn’t get more fight scenes, watching her wield the samurai sword is one of the film’s best moments.

“Prisoners of the Ghostland” is a Western samurai post-apocalyptic yarn that not only defies logic but also disregards it. The film reminds me of a dining experience I once had in Austin. The restaurant décor was full-on Chinese, the menu featured only Mexican food, and at the end of your meal, the check came with fortune cookies. A little absurd but man did it hit the spot.

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Joe Friar is a member of the Critics Choice Association (Los Angeles) and the Houston Film Critics Society. A lifelong fan of cinema, he co-founded the Victoria Film Society, Frels Fright Fest, and is a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic.

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Joe Friar is a member of the Critics Choice Association (Los Angeles) and the Houston Film Critics Society. A lifelong fan of cinema, he co-founded the Victoria Film Society, Frels Fright Fest, and is a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic.

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