action, Bill Moseley, Canon Nawata, film festivals, Japan, Lorena Koto, movies, Nick Cassavetes, Nicolas Cage, Prisoners of the Ghostland, reviews, Sion Sono, Sofia Boutella, Sundance, Sundance Film Festival, Tak Sakaguchi, Yuzuka Nakaya
April 18, 2022
by Carla Hay
Directed by Sion Sono
Culture Representation: Taking place in Japan, in the fictional city called Samurai Town and in a fictional area called Ghostland, the action film “Prisoners of the Ghostland” features a cast of predominantly white and Asian characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.
Culture Clash: A mysterious man is forced to find a ruthless leader’s enslaved concubine, who has escaped.
Culture Audience: “Prisoners of the Ghostland” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of Nicolas Cage and anyone who likes action movies that have more style than substance.
“Prisoners of the Ghostland” has impressive production design and cinematography, but this visually stylish action flick is too much of an incoherent mess in all other areas to be a truly enjoyable experience. Nicolas Cage’s die-hard fans, who automatically praise everything he does, will probably like “Prisoners of the Ghostland” just because he’s in the movie, in spite of the film’s very obvious failings. Unfortunately, the “Prisoners of the Ghostland” story just too cliché, but the filmmakers try to distract from this unoriginality by cluttering up the movie with predictable fight scenes and some bizarre characters.
Directed by Sion Sono, “Prisoners of the Ghostland”(which takes place in fictional areas of Japan) is essentially a post-apocalyptic film that blends elements of Western movies and samurai movies. “Prisoners of the Ghostland” (written by Aaron Hendry and Reza Sixo Safai) has the over-used “male hero who has to save a woman” concept as the basis for the protagonist’s main mission in this story. Maybe it’s a joke or maybe the filmmakers were just too lazy to come up with a name for the protagonist (played by Cage), but he doesn’t have a name in the movie. He’s listed in the film credits as Hero.
The Hero character is not exactly an upstanding, morally righteous person. He’s in prison for a bank robbery where he and his partner in crime, named Psycho (played by Nick Cassavetes), murdered several innocent bystanders. (This bank robbery is shown in a very bloody flashback.)
Psycho was in a prison transport vehicle that crashed into a truck carrying nuclear waste, which caused a massive explosion, leading to much of the area becoming a wasteland disaster area. (“Prisoners of the Ghostland” was filmed in Japan and Los Angeles. The movie had its world premiere at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.)
A corrupt and twisted leader named the Governor (played by Bill Moseley) has created a settlement community called Samurai Town, which is a combination of a modern Japanese city and American Old West village. As such, people in Samurai Town either dress in traditional Japanese clothing or cowboy/cowgirl gear. The Governor keeps women as sex slaves, whom he calls his “granddaughters.”
One of the enslaved women has escaped. Her name is Bernice (played by Sofia Boutella), and the Governor lets Hero out of prison to force Hero to find Bernice and bring her back to the Governor. As part of this mercenary task, the Governor forces Hero to wear a black leather outfit that is rigged with a detonator. The bomb on the suit will go off if Hero does not return Bernice in two days.
There are voice recognition buttons on the outfit’s sleeves, so that Bernice can speak into these devices to confirm that she is with Hero. Electro-chargers have been placed around Hero’s neck and testicles that will detonate if he tries to take off this outfit before the task is completed. Instead of taking the black Toyota Celica that has been offered to him, Hero instead decides to leave on a bicycle.
The Governor has a samurai bodyguard/enforcer named Yasujiro (played by Tak Sakaguchi), who catches up to Hero and tells him to use the car, and Hero obliges. However, Hero ends up crashing the car and is carried into a bombed-out area called Ghostland, which can be best be described as a rebellious steampunk community. The leader of the Ghostland tribe is the demented Enoch (played by Charles Glover), who knows that Bernice is there, but he’s doesn’t want to let her go.
You know where this story is headed, of course. The rest of “Prisoners of the Ghostland” is just a series of one obstacle after another for Hero, who gets into a lot of fights along the way. And did we mention that there are also some zombies in this post-apocalyptic world? (How unoriginal and unnecessary.)
Unfortunately, none of the uneven acting in “Prisoners of the Ghostland” elevates this shoddily told story. The dialogue in this movie is simply atrocious. “Prisoners of the Ghostland” tries every hard to be perceived as a zany action movie, but there’s no wit, charm or unpredictability to this story. For an action flick, it’s got dreadfully sluggish pacing in too many areas.
“Prisoners of the Ghostland” also has a lot of characters that are either too bland or so wacky that they’re trying too hard and are therefore annoying. Cage is just doing another version of the angsty loner type that he has already done in many of his other films. The villains are hollow. And most of the supporting characters—including Bernice’s friends Stella (played by Lorena Kotô), Nancy (played by Canon Nawata) and Susie (played by Yuzuka Nakaya)—are underwritten and underdeveloped.
It seems like “Prisoners of the Ghostland” was made with the idea that it will be a cult classic that will inspire other movies, similar to what director George Miller’s 1979 post-apocalyptic action classic “Mad Max” ended up doing for sci-fi action cinema in a “wasteland” setting. However, “Prisoners of the Ghostland” doesn’t have enough meaningful characters to care about to see again in spinoffs or sequels. “Prisoners of the Ghostland” is just an empty exercise from filmmakers who think that all you need to make a good action movie are memorable set designs, a well-known actor as a headliner, and a variety of fight scenes. That’s not enough to save “Prisoners of the Ghostland” from being a disappointing mishmash of superficial self-indulgence and amateurish storytelling.
RLJE Films released “Prisoners of the Ghostland” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on September 17, 2021. The movie was released on Blu-ray and DVD on November 16, 2021.