Prisoners of the Ghostland

Is it too soon to do another Nicolas Cage movie review? I swear that guy makes movies faster than most people can watch them. And this is going to make a great contrast with the relatively sedate (dare I say mature?) Pig, because this is probably the kind of performance people are thinking of when they say they don’t like Mr. Cage, and the sort of movies they think he’s making. Malignant is tame by comparison.

If you want something more conventional, I offer you the blandly pleasant Free Guy, the well-meaning-but-occasionally-shockingly-amateurish Tango Shalom, or Malignant. I guess people are talking about and shocked by the latter, but it was essentially a solid slasher with a well-telegraphed reveal which you’re either going to buy or not. No, no, you want weird? Let’s get weird.

Naked Cage!

There’s a perfectly rational explanation for th—okay, no, of course not. Don’t be silly.

Here we have the…I don’t know…43rd? film by Sion Sono (director of such hits as Why Don’t You Go Play In Hell? and Bad Film) about a bank robber (Cage) in a dystopic Old West town (called “Samurai Town” and full of samurai and geisha as well as cowboys) who is turned loose (although constrained by a leather suit with time-bombs wired to his arms, neck and ‘nads) by the evil governor (Bill Mosely) and sent on a mission to retrieve his “granddaughter” (Sofia Boutella) who we’ve seen escape through the mysterious Ghostland into a city where forlorn urchins listen to Enoch (Charles Glover) as he reads them things like Wuthering Heights, as the wretched men of the town work night and day pulling a rope to keep a giant clock from advancing.

Sure we’ve seen it before, but have we ever seen it with Nick Cassavetes playing a psycho ghost named Psycho who, underneath his penchant for blowing children away, is actually a decent sort of guy? I think not!

Abandon all rational thought.

Outside the bank: A dirty 19th century town with people dressed in peasant clothes. Inside the bank: pristine white décor with women dressed in 1960s-style primary-color dresses and a boy in a cable-knit sweater.

This movie is what you call a pastiche: The premise is Escape from New York (or more likely Escape from L.A.), the setting is Mad Max (Beyond Thunderdome especially, but with elements of Road Warrior), there are costume elements that reminded me strongly of Running Man, there are story elements from westerns (the bank robbery reminded me of Peckinpah, if he’d made his shootouts in a brightly lit banks where everyone was wearing primary colors, and the giant clock recalled Sam Raimi’s The Quick and the Dead, as did elements of the ersatz Old West towns), and there are action sequences and blood effects that are straight out of samurai movies (Lone Wolf and Cub leapt to mind).

None of it makes a lick of sense. This is kind of interesting to me because the screenplay writer (Persian?) Reza Sixo Safai, whom we know around here for his role in A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, apparently spent over a decade trying to get this made. Enough time, one would think, to iron out the kinks, were one so inclined.

As do we all.

Sophia Boutella wonders what the hell is going on.

So, we have to assume that it isn’t really trying to make sense, and indeed embracing that is about the only way you’re going to enjoy this film. The Boy and I? We enjoyed it. One thing that won me over early on was that it’s quite beautifully shot. Some of these Japanese directors will turn out two, three…six!…movies a year, and yet they’ll often be more interesting visually and more engaging than the bland, focus-tested, color-coded fare we get in America.

The tone is, shall we say, uneven? It’s mostly pretty serious, with heavy overtones of the weird—dreams, fate, ghosts—but it does occasionally and quite consciously get silly in places, not always to the best effect. Much worse is how many truly great things were left on the table: The big clock has no meaning, really. There’s a whole theme about time that doesn’t really go anywhere. There’s a heroic samurai whose backstory just kind of peters out. It’s a tale of redemption, in the classic western mold, but it’s too busy doing other things to give weight to the various story elements that make that sort of story resonate.

You want sense or you want beauty?

I think these are the boss’ girls on their way to the manor house, walking in front of the enslaved girls, though there’s a lot of reasons that doesn’t make sense. But look at the colors!

Hats off to the 57-year-old Cage doing a pretty good job as an action hero. We’ll see how he fares in 2028, when he’s 66—Harrison Ford’s age in Indiana Jones and the Walker of Impending Mortality. (I can’t even hear about the Indy 5 shoots without wincing.)

This is not for everyone, obviously. Hell, it’s not for most people. And if it hadn’t been so visually interesting with over-the-top performances, it would’ve been boring. More than anything it would’ve felt like one of those ’80s Italian versions of Mad Max or Escape From New York; Italians also don’t care much about making sense. But we were glad we saw it. We had some laughs and least manage to get out into the city ahead of the impending vaccine passport fascism.

The plot is less important.

Somebody really cared about getting good shots. (Less so about plot.)

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