In the first scene of “Prisoners of the Ghostland,” Nicholas Cage (“Color Out of Space”) bursts into a bank lobby, screaming “Bonsai!” and wielding a shotgun.
The film gets crazier from there.
“Prisoners of the Ghostland” is director Sion Sono’s (“Antiporno”) first English-language film, a wild romp of bullets, blood and neon lights. It’s set in Samurai Town, a Spaghetti Western-style hamlet with the beautiful urban glow of “Blade Runner.” It’s also a prison, where women are forced to work as servants and kept behind bars at night. Almost every man has a weapon, be it a six-shooter or a Samurai sword.
The town is ruled by The Governor, played by Bill Moseley (“I Am Fear”), a bearded American in a white suit who’s reminiscent of Colonel Sanders. One of his propaganda flyers, stuck sneakily in the background of a few shots, adds another evocation: “Make this country great again.”
According to The Governor, his granddaughter Bernice, played by Sofia Boutella (“Kingsman: The Secret Service”), has gone missing. She’d call it an escape. The Governor turns to Hero, Cage’s character, who was imprisoned after the robbery, for help. To ensure his cooperation, he’s forced to wear an explosive leather jumpsuit, with special bombs on his crotch. Predictably, that doesn’t turn out very well.
Hero finds Bernice in Ghostland, a settlement outside an abandoned factory whose inhabitants are kept prisoner by radioactive monsters. As if that wasn’t enough, Ghostland’s citizens must physically keep a gigantic clock from ticking, holding off the industrial hellscape’s inevitable destruction.
“Prisoners of The Ghostland” is an Eastern slash em’ up meets a Western shoot em’ up, with impeccable attention to mood. Cage takes the steeled-gunfighter archetype, made famous by Clint Eastwood and Kurt Russell, and ratchets it up to his usual level of insanity which, in Sono’s hands, ranges from the satirical to the Shakespearean. It’s saying a lot, too, when Cage isn’t the craziest part of a movie.
The sheer craziness alone makes “Prisoners of The Ghostland” a must-see for any genre fan. What makes the film unique is that the swords, gallons of fake blood, TNT, machine guns and Cage’s vocal cords all have a clear, vital thematic purpose.
Banners over Samurai Town read “Pay your taxes or die like a dog.” Women are imprisoned, made into living mannequins or enslaved by the men who continue polluting the landscape, even after nuclear disaster.
People kill one another in the street, and children have lost the will to live. The supporting characters spend almost the entire film in a state of hysterics — they scream almost every line, run almost everywhere and are prone to breaking into song. It’s like Samurai Town is inhabited by people from especially terrible commercials, who rush with unbounded enthusiasm to nowhere in particular, chanting saccharine jingles as the world burns. It’s capitalism gone off the rails, ticking like Ghostland’s clock to its brutal, exploitative end.
Thankfully, Cage, wide-eyed and screaming like a maniac, is there to help.
Sono politically weaponizes the exploitation genre with a breathless visual flare, somehow infusing every crazy scene with an element of sublimity, like an exploding gumball machine or a blood-colored rose falling to the dirt. The world may be ending, but it looks absolutely beautiful.
Explosively hysterical, “Ghostland” is sure to become a cult classic.
Daily Arts Writer Andrew Warrick can be reached at email@example.com.