Every film-lover has her or his idea of what constitutes “out there,” and what level of gonzo one will tolerate in that regard.
Some prefer the excesses of Yorgos Lanthimos to those of Terry Gilliam, Derek Jarman, Maya Deren or Dario Argento. Recently, some latched onto James Wan’s screwy “Malignant,” while others embraced Paul Schrader’s deep and dull disquisition on guilt, “The Card Counter.”
But fans of Nicolas Cage are in a league all our own. Our tolerances are hard-wired for wild-eyed screaming and Method acting brooding in plots seemingly concocted on cocaine.
Teaming him with the Japanese director Sion Sono, of “Suicide Club” and the best-titled thriller ever, “Why Don’t You Play in Hell?” for “Prisoners of the Ghostland” is freak flag flying at its finest…or weirdest.
It’s a dark, samurais and zombies slasher fantasy, the sort of movie Terry Gilliam might have made had he grown up in Japan and not Minnesota. Very “out there,” seriously “miss-or-hit,” in other words.
And Cage? Say this for the cinema’s most imitatably deranged leading man. He never stands pat in the poker game of his career. “Pig” earns him his best reviews in years? Let’s chase that bad boy with a psychotic turn as a brutish bank robber blackmailed into rescuing the granddaughter (Sofia Boutella of “The Mummy”) of a rich, powerful nutjob, played by horror icon Bill Moseley (“House of 1000 Corpses,” “Grindhouse,” “Repo! The Genetic Opera”).
Cage is simply named “Hero” here, and we meet him as a bank robbery, carried out with a trigger-happy Psycho (Nick Cassavetes), goes bloodily wrong. Flashbacks, always replayed in slow motion, show just how wrong.
Our Hero turns up in the hands of the Sheriff (Takato Yonemoto), but in the clutches of the Governor (Moseley). He’s a white-suited dandy (complete with cowboy hat) whose speech leans towards florid.
He is missing “Mah sweet sugah-pie. I would have her returned to me. I would have her returned posthaste.”
She was grabbed on “a stretch of highway where evil reigns,” our Hero is told. He’s given a black leather Elvis jumpsuit equipped with sensors and motivational pressure-point explosives. Do no cross the Governor, the Governor warns.
“To quarrel with me is a mistake many men have made, never to make again.”
Standing in a sea of Japanese cowboy cosplayers, backed up by the Governor’s samurai lieutenant, Yasuhiro (Tak Sakaguchi, of “Red Blade” and “Samurai Zombie”), who is our Hero to protest?
The nuttiness includes chanted rituals and mass sing-alongs to “My Grandfather’s Clock” in a post-apocalyptic wasteland where Rat Man and his Rat Clan roam free, geishas are enslaved, zombies and samurai have their moments and our Hero has almost no time to complete his mission before explosives injure this arm or remove that testicle.
The references dip into wasteland manga, “Alas poor Yorick,” “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” and “Long live Animal Farm!”
And no, it doesn’t make much sense. Surely this is the strangest movie Cage has ever been in, and that’s saying something.
But arresting image follows arresting image in Sono’s fevered vision and his one chance to reach a wide (ish) North American movie audience. It won’t be to many tastes, although some will get more out of it than others…or me.
Still, you know you’re curious. And if you’re anywhere near Nic Cage’s UHF wavelength, you can’t afford to miss him bike, bash and bludgeon his way through this Ghostland. It’s something to see, man.
Rating: unrated, graphic violence
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Sofia Boutella, Tak Sakaguchi, Nick Cassavetes, Narisa Suzuki and Bill Moseley.
Credits: Directed by Sion Sono, scripted by Aaron Hendry and Reza Sixo Safai. An RLJE release.
Running time: 1:43