So, it’s the future or the past or somewhere off to one side and we’re in Samurai Town, a mash-up of spaghetti western and feudal Japan that might have sprung up in some Mad Maxy post-collapse wasteland … or maybe it’s just a film setting, where characters with names like Hero, Psycho and the Governor are fated to replay basic plots as if damned. Director Sion Sono, making an English-language debut, is one of the most unpredictable, exciting cinema visionaries currently working at the top of his game, and he teams here with Nicolas Cage, who has recently upped the percentage of interestingly weird items (Army of One, Mom and Dad, Pig, Color Out of Space, Mandy) along with his flow of basic product (211, Arsenal, Kill Chain, Primal, Jiu Jitsu). It’s a shame, then, that Prisoners of the Ghostland keeps reminding you of other films – notably Takashi Miike’s Sukiyaki Western Django, but also such what-were-they-thinking efforts as Ana Lily Amirpoor’s The Bad Batch or even Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch. It has Siono’s often-astonishing visuals, a deadpan sense of humour and moments of delirium – the whole town singing ‘My Grandfather’s Clock’ to explain a plot point – going for it but after a while can’t just coast on attitude alone and whackiness turns to just plain whack.
Hero (Cage, almost as close-mouthed as his mute turn in Willy’s Wonderland) and pal Psycho (Nick Cassavetes) rob a bank in Samurai Town and – as is often the case with heists where one of the key players is called Psycho – things don’t go well, leading to a pile of corpses and Hero going to prison for an indeterminate time. When he gets out, he’s no older but a little girl who got hurt in the crossfire has grown up to be Bernice (Sofia Boutella), the adopted daughter of the Gobernor (Bill Moseley), who wears one of those evil white suits that’s an invitation to a late-in-the-film riddling-with-bullet-and-blood-squibs. Bernice has run off into the Ghostland to be free (ie: lie around looking wasted on piles of rubbish) and Hero is strapped into a leather suit with bombs attached at strategic points – including his testicles – to be sent off on an Escape From New York mission to get the girl back. As she finally demonstrates, any character played by Boutella can probably look after herself – but she’s a plot token in this movie, which trudges between tribes of mutants, filling things in with repeated flashbacks to the primal trauma. Also around is Yasujiro (Tak Sakaguchi, from Crazy Samura Musashi) as an honourable swordsman who isn’t really committed to a dishonourable cause.
All these creatives make the film worth watching, and any number of scenes and set-pieces are splendid … but it rings hollow. Eventually, the one-damn-thing-after-another plotting becomes wearisome. Written by folks who have more acting than writing credits – Aaron Hendry (the Teen Wolf TV series) and Reza Sixo Safai (the rockabilly from A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night).