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Prisoners of the Ghostland review – an unbearable step backwards for Nicolas Cage

Sion Sono's film does the impossible and makes a story of a criminal warrior with explosives in his testicles into a boring chore

Just a few weeks ago, Nicolas Cage reminded us of exactly the brilliance he’s capable of with the sombre, beautiful Pig – further proof, if any was needed, that no actor can balance the manic with the profound like he can. Sadly, it’s not a run of form that continues with Sion Sono’s Prisoners of the Ghostland, a film that, in amongst its litany of other failures, feels like a backwards step for Cage, with both his performance and the movie as a whole so self-conscious in its weirdness that it’s impossible to enjoy.

Cage plays Hero, an imprisoned bank robber in a post-apocalyptic Japan that has been divided into the relatively civilised Samurai Town and the Mad Max-esque wastes of the “Ghostland.” After Bernice (Sofia Boutella), the granddaughter of the dandy-ish Governor (Bill Mosely), is kidnapped by the Ghostlanders, Hero is forced to go on a rescue mission to retrieve her, strapped into a leather suit that will explode piece by piece (including a small bomb attached to each of his testicles) if he fails.

Everything in Prisoners of the Ghostland sounds wild on paper – the aforementioned bollock bombs, a field of living mannequins, a cult revolving around a big clock that’s never allowed to strike three – but Sono’s surrealism is never that exciting in practice. It always feels mannered, even forced, to the point that it eventually just becomes dull. The visuals, outside of their initially disarming weirdness, are drab, the fight scenes lifeless, and the story is constantly being interrupted by drawn-out, slow motion flashbacks that relay uninteresting exposition.

Even Cage can’t cut through the boredom. This is hardly a full-bore Cage freakout a la Bad Lieutenant or Mandy, and instead he just looks stranded in Sono’s world, giving a rather raspy performance that often gets lost within a woeful sound mix. His star power is muted by the effortful affectations of the rest of the film, not to mention some utterly unnecessary sub-plots – the whole thing could easily lose 20 of its 100 maddeningly self-indulgent minutes.

Prisoners of the Ghostland spends a lot of time and energy insisting that it’s already a cult classic, but it puts in none of the requisite work to actually earn that title. It’s nowhere near as fun or transgressive as it thinks it is, and most scenes are so shrouded in a greyish-brown dust that it’s hard to imagine anyone wanting to revisit its sickly-looking world. There are pretty much only two locations, while the set-pieces all seem rushed and lifeless – how a minigun massacre involving an army of cowboys and samurais can be boring is beyond me, but Prisoners of the Ghostland somehow manages it.

Nicolas Cage himself labelled Prisoners of the Ghostland as “the wildest movie [he’s] ever made,” and whilst I’m loath to disagree with one of America’s finest actors, it never comes anywhere near reaching the heights of his best weirdo work. In fact, it never really comes anywhere near hanging together as a film in its own right, a flat and alienating caper that uses zaniness as a cynical shield against having to tell a coherent, or even bearable, story.

Prisoners of the Ghostland is now showing in select UK cinemas.

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