In a pre-screening introduction to the Sundance world premiere with director Sion Sono, the prolific filmmaker revealed that his first English-language film wasn’t initially meant to be filmed in native Japan. Because of a heart attack suffered during the pre-production phase of the film, Sono revealed that lead actor Nicolas Cage suggested that they film in Japan for the sake of the director’s health. In a serendipitous twist, that decision ultimately led to a stunning East meets Wild West aesthetic. The result is a neon-drenched spaghetti western full of idiosyncratic humor and violent social messaging guaranteed to polarize.
Opening with a heavily stylized bank robbery gone wrong, Sono’s latest then skips ahead to a trio of women in geisha garb skipping town in the middle of the night. One of them, Bernice (Sofia Boutella), immediately runs into some significant trouble. Cut to present day Samurai Town. An incarcerated Hero (Nicolas Cage) is sprung by the Governor (Bill Moseley), suited up in a leather suit, and tasked with retrieving Bernice in a matter of days. If he doesn’t, there will be dire consequences; his suit is rigged to explode if he fails to make it back within the allotted time or if his violent impulses run too rampant. It leads him through a spaghetti western, post-apocalyptic journey that will result in violence.
The very premise, combined with Sono’s idiosyncratic sense of humor, sets up a John Carpenter’s Escape from L.A. type of cult film. Yet, that’s only the start of what’s in store. Cage does get top billing and is initially presented as a Snake Plissken type, but a few key players contribute to the bonkers expedition ahead. Moseley once again makes for a formidable and memorable big bad. Still, Tak Sakaguchi (Versus, Why Don’t You Play in Hell?), Yuzuka Nakaya as the Governor’s unhinged captive, and Sofia Boutella easily hold their own in this wild west insanity. While all of them are given plenty of moments to shine, particularly during battle, you can count on Cage to get unleashed to bring his expected humor. Hero’s leather suit leads to multiple occasions of hammy humor, including an unforgettable scene in which he holds his exploded testicle in his hand while yelling about it. That’s only the start of Cage’s iconic lines that will sear into your skull.
Written by Aaron Hendry and Reza Sixo Safai, Prisoners marks Sono’s most refined feature yet. Blending the western, post-apocalyptic, and samurai thriller genres, united by its polished neon-soaked aesthetic, this genre-mashup is nothing short of breathtaking. In contrast, the scale for this wild tale isn’t as grand as you’d initially expect; the intricate and big-budget set pieces more than distract from that. The aesthetic alone in this feature will impress.
As with most Sono efforts, the insane violence, genre fare, and peculiar comedy brand belie thinly veiled commentary. Hero finds Bernice reasonably quickly, but that discovery poses a whole slew of unexpected problems in the form of the Ghostland’s dystopian history with nuclear fallout. Underneath the complete batshit insanity lies some interesting critiques of a modern, Americanized culture thriving next to an impoverished wasteland struggling to rebuild over land ripped apart by atomic bombing and nuclear contaminants dumped underground. It distorts and erases so much history in the process. The magic of Sono’s direction is that you don’t need to appreciate the subtext to enjoy the insanity. You can dig deeper or simply revel in the insanity. And there’s so much wild, wild insanity in store.
In many ways, Prisoners of the Ghostland feels like an amalgam of Sono’s previous efforts; lessons learned from previous films all contributed to crafting one slick production. The filmmaker also knows precisely how to use Cage for maximum entertainment, just enough to deliver memorable monologues and physical humor but not enough to overpower the feature. There’s exciting depth bubbling beneath the surface of a wild genre effort that stands on its own. It’s smaller-scaled than expected, and its peculiar tone will be divisive, but it’s a bonkers ride that will keep you captivated throughout. There’s no weak link among the cast or crew; it’s all a preference of taste and tone. Either way, Sono’s first English language feature is a triumph for bizarro cinema.