Madman actor Nicolas Cage collaborated with madman genre filmmaker Sion Sono on a dystopian horror-Western set in the futuristic nuclear wastelands of Japan. Everything about that team-up sounds like an easy slam dunk, but instead it’s a lazy layup that barely makes it through the hoop. Prisoners of the Ghostland is overloaded with vivid pop art iconography, surprisingly effective creep-outs in its momentary stabs at horror, a plot bonkers enough to rival Hell Comes to Frogtown . . . and yet it’s somehow near-indistinguishable from most of Cage’s late-career goof-offs. It’s amusing enough as a Nic Cagian novelty, but it’s shockingly inessential considering the pedigree of the director behind it (whose film Suicide Club is among my all-time personal favs).
In Hell Comes to Frogtown fashion, Nicolas Cage plays a violent criminal on a mercenary mission to retrieve a missing woman from the nuclear wastelands, locked into a security device that will explode his limbs, head, and testicles if he steps out of line. His target for retrieval is a runaway sex slave (Sofia Boutella) who’s better off staying lost in the desert than under the thumb of the captors paying for her return. Will the cold-hearted brute warm to his doomed captive and fight for her freedom instead of trading her in for freedom & cash? The answer to that question is obvious, but it’s also obvious that the plot doesn’t matter as much as the vibrant comic book swordfights & gun battles that illustrate it. They do look cool, but that’s about all they do.
Like a lot of late-career Nic Cage oddities, Prisoners of the Ghostland‘s major downfall is that it recalls too many of the actor’s previous stunt performances to stand out on its own as anything especially novel. Between its echoes of the missing-girl mission from Wicker Man, the hotrod-revving macho posturing from Drive Angry, and the dystopian gloom of Mandy, Prisoners of the Ghostland plays like a Greatest Hits collection of Nic Cage meme movies. The real shame about that is losing Sion Sono’s voice among the whispers-and-screams performances of Cage and his cast of fellow caricatures. Sono’s visual iconography is gorgeously realized here—especially in the wasteland’s creepy mannequin masks and the village’s blood-spraying samurai swordfights—but it overall feels more like a Nic Cage movie than a 50/50 collaboration. The two of them should make beautiful music together, but it ends up feeling like a solo project.
Nicolas Cage had an interesting year. Instead of starring in a dozen DTV action snoozers and a couple genuinely interesting outliers, he appears to have been much pickier than usual when choosing his projects. Cage only starred in three movies released in 2021. Going into the year, Prisoners of the Ghostland promised to be his Mandy-scale knockout, but that honor ended up going to a quiet drama about the art of fine dining. It also looked like it might be the most fun performance he’d put in all year, but even by that metric it was outdone by a single-location thriller where he fights killer Chuck E. Cheese style animatronics (a movie that appears to be very popular among furries, if my anecdotal observations mean anything). Instead, it ended up being the mediocre middle ground between those two competing features, which is not at all what you want to feel about a Cage/Sono team-up.
For everyone playing along at home, here’s the official 2021 Nic Cage Movie Power Rankings: