“I’d heard that after his first recording session he did a few of the lines and the director kept making notes. And then Nicolas just turned and he was like ‘Oh, you want me to go full Cage?’ ... He brought the Cage.”—Paul Watling, head of story, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Before you argue that Nicolas Cage is a good actor or a bad actor, you probably need to clarify your criteria, cite your sources, show your work. You need a corkboard and pushpins and yarn. You need a lot of time on your hands. I am not here to argue either way: I submit that he’s one of the most interesting and one of the most perplexing actors who still commands so much attention and puts in so many performances. Cage works constantly, and whether all the movies he’s in are any good is almost beside the point. Cage is in the movie, so you are getting something special.
Prisoners of the Ghostland, Japanese director Sion Sono’s dreamlike post-apocalyptic spaghetti samurai flick, seems to draw from every cinematic well in reach. Sono chose Cage to anchor a movie that mixes together samurai films and the Westerns of Leone with the give-no-fucks-but-compelled-to-adventure antihero from John Carpenter. There’s a dash of Mad Max and more than a little Jodorowsky somewhere in all of it, too. It’s easy to imagine another actor looking and feeling woefully out of place in this specific kind of pastiche. Cage is very, very much at home in it.
In an indeterminate apocalyptic future, or maybe an alternate present—maybe in Japan, maybe anywhere else—a trio of women have fled from Samurai Town, a place with a very specific multicultural aesthetic under the thumb of a petty local tyrant, the Governor (Bill Moseley), who wears an all-white cowboy politician suit and speaks in a drawl. His hired muscle comes in two flavors: Six-gun-strapped cowboy dudes and katana-wielding samurai dudes, the mightiest of whom is Yasujiro (Tak Sakaguchi, a veteran of wild Japanese action flicks).
One of the escapees, Bernice (Sofia Boutella), is the Governor’s daughter, and since he can’t abide not being the center of everyone’s world, he frees Cage’s nameless prisoner from the hard time he’s been doing since a bank robbery that went wrong and tasks him with hunting Bernice down. Cage (credited only as “Hero”) is strapped into a suit with explosive charges that will blow off his arms, balls, and head if he attempts escape or indiscretion, and he’s given three days and a Toyota Celica to go bring her back. (He so disdains his directive that he initially ditches the car and lights out on a bicycle purely out of spite before relenting. Everybody in Samurai Town thinks this is badass.)
The radioactive wasteland is haunted by a crew of ghostly, samurai armor-clad highwaymen who trap Cage in “the Ghostland,” an odd junkpile commune of castoffs who seem right out of El Topo or The Holy Mountain. Our hero must recover Bernice before he loses his head, but just as you suspect if you’ve seen a few movies like this, the real question is whether he can slip his explosive leash and dispense some actual justice to those who deserve it.
Cage may not make it out of the adventure with all of his extremities intact, but (just like Snake Plissken), he manages to get the last word in a world that wants him to believe there’s nothing left to say.
But, you must want to know, how is Nicolas Cage in this thing?
This is the wild and fey Cage, the unrestrained Cage, the Cage who is entirely self-aware and clearly taking direction exactly as Sono is giving it to him. Everybody in this movie is a wild-eyed psycho or a chanting sycophant, covering women in the shattered shells of destroyed mannequins or reciting an interpretive dance about the nuclear history of the Ghostland in unison. This is Cage engaging in a swordfight with Sakaguchi that takes a pause for Cage to curse at the top of his lungs because both guys just punched each other in the nuts.
This kind of unrestrained performance—going “full Cage” as the actor has reportedly said himself without irony—has not exactly been absent from recent works like Pig and Mandy, but it’s certainly been very carefully controlled, even purposefully subverted. Compared to the recent stretch that has seen Cage starring in movies that have taken that approach to his manic streak, Prisoners of the Ghostland clearly sees it as an asset, another piece of the mosaic.
Cage’s character is clearly meant to stand out in this movie: In an early scene and a number of flashbacks to it, he and his fellow triggerman (Nick Cassavetes) are the only two people in Samurai Town who are not dressed as either gunslingers or ronin. It would be easy for his performance, then, to make him seem like he doesn’t belong in the film at all, but he and Sono manage to make him both seem like an outsider and keep his wild weirdness dialed to a level that doesn’t completely outshine the other cast members, who are also pretty committed.
The result is a Cage performance that has a lot of the hallmarks of his most unrestrained films, but that feels just right alongside his co-stars and the grimy world Sono has created.
Cage is, of course, the reason a lot of people are probably going to see this one, but there’s a lot more to like and to ponder. There’s a lot to praise about Sono’s vision, and plenty of the director inside the work, even as it’s borrowing from and referencing so much. The intricacy and complexity of some of the set design makes you wonder just how long some of it took to construct: The Ghostland, a post-industrial garbage pile where a clocktower looms over miserable inhabitants who won’t let its hands advance out of apocalyptic fear, is as grungy and tactile as it is dreamlike.
It is an unforgettable setting, and Cage is unforgettable in it.
Prisoners of the Ghostland comes out on September 17.
Kenneth Lowe likes to drink egg creams and likes to fight Nazis. A lot. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.