As part of the ongoing “New to Me” Film Festival — basically me watching lots of movies I’ve never seen — I’ve been watching a lot of Nicolas Cage’s more recent movies. He’s working a lot for financial reasons, sure, and for lower budgets, but Cage still seems excited by acting. He’s alive and making his usual unique choices and taking chances. Say what you will about Rob W. King’s “The Humanity Bureau” (2018), a modest, slightly goofy micro-budget futuristic thriller, but Cage hasn’t turned into Bruce Willis. He’s not phoning it in.
I walked into Sion Sono’s “Prisoners of the Ghostland” (RLJE Films-Untitled Entertainment-Patriot Pictures-Union Patriot Capital Management-Eleven Arts-XYZ Films, 2021, 103 min.) expecting a schlocky, jokey action movie along the lines of Nicolas Cage in “Willy’s Wonderland” because Cage also stars here. But this is not a parody like “Black Dynamite” and the “Machete” movies. Okay, sure, we get a few chuckles from Cage’s gonzo line deliveries, but “Prisoners of the Ghostland” isn’t some hyper spoof.
There are affectionate nods to past pulp in this film, like a robot arm that recalls Ash’s chainsaw appendage in “Evil Dead II: Dead By Dawn,” but the big homage is clearly John Carpenter’s “Escape From New York” (1981): Cage plays a ruthless bank robber named Hero who gets sprung from jail by The Governor (Bill Moseley of “Army of Darkness,” clad like Colonel Sanders) of Samurai Town. The Guv wants Hero to travel to Ghostland to rescue his daughter (Sofia Boutella, so striking in “Kingsman: The Secret Service,” “Star Trek Beyond” and “Atomic Blonde”), who has been kidnapped.
But it’s no easy snatch and grab job for Hero. Just as Snake Plissken had explosive charges injected into his body, The Governor fits him with what looks like a vinyl sex suit, also with charges ready to blow him to bits if he doesn’t play along. Despite the lunatic nature of the story, there’s a real beating heart inside this movie’s crazed mélange of costumes, sets, atmosphere and plot riffing.
This is my first time seeing the work of Sion Sono. He approaches this story with operatic energy and style, but slightly trashier than, say, Akira Kurosawa. “Prisoners of the Ghostland” is a visual riot of styles in every aspect. Samurai Town is all put together like the streets of Hong Kong, with all kinds of storefronts open for business, while Ghostland is eternally under construction, its buildings in the process of being built, with tarps tacked down everywhere flapping in the wind. Because its residents are so fearful of their collective future, townspeople are always playing tug of war, pulling on a rope attached to the minute hand of the town square clock (Perhaps a reference to “Back to the Future”), literally trying to stop time.
Having seen so many small movies enlivened by Cage’s eccentric energy, it’s nice to see a movie like this with a more substantial budget. And while Cage has fun with his lines of dialogue, he’s all in, whether it be the film’s many fight sequences, or a goofy moment when he starts out for Ghostland in a sleek sports car, switches to a little kid’s pink bicycle — a reference to “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure,” perhaps? — and then switches back to the car because it is actually faster than the bike. Somehow Cage plays the whole scene straight, which makes it much funnier.
Recommended: “The Lost Leonardo” at Cinemapolis
RIP: Norm MacDonald (“Billy Madison,” “The People Vs. Larry Flynt,” “Man on the Moon”)