At some point in the distant future, long after nuclear holocaust or airborne plague has wiped out the human race, some film critic (we’re like cockroaches, sure to survive such an apocalypse) will no doubt uncover a list of the projects Nicolas Cage has turned down, and it will finally become clear how the actor determined the course of his career.
For about a dozen years, from mid-’90s Bruck-buster “The Rock” through family hamster-tainment “G-Force,” it has seemed that the ka-ching of a cash register must have been the deciding factor, but in the dozen years since, a pattern has emerged that Cage isn’t merely cashing checks but may in fact be shaping the world’s most eccentric filmography by design.
Proof positive is his agreement to make “Prisoners of the Ghostland” with Japan’s resident weird-meister Sion Sono — a revolving position that amounts to being the unofficial poet laureate of extreme psychosexual shlock, one that’s been passed from Nagisa Oshima down to Takashi Miike through the years and now lands squarely on the shoulders of prolific provocateur Sono (“Love Exposure,” “Antiporno”). Such directors enjoy a time in the sun, when film festivals looking for something far outside the realm of the usual decide the flavor du jour deserves to be championed.
Just when Sono appeared to have passed his expiration date, the Japanese director has agreed to splatter-paint his first majority-English-language feature, choosing a half-baked samurai Western whose wild-eyed antihero (named “Hero,” since Christopher Nolan had dibs on “Protagonist”) might be played by none other than Cage. This is cause for celebration in some corners — like the one where Sundance programmers have been gifted a Sono joint for their pandemic-afflicted 2021 Premieres section — and dissociation in others, since Cage’s how-gonzo-can-you-go limbo bar has now crossed over into a parallel dimension (where this questionable “National Treasure” will soon be playing “Tiger King” Joe Exotic).
For those still on the fence, the good news here is that even when so clearly bored, Cage is never boring. That means even though this script — credited to Aaron Hendry and Reza Sixo Safai — appears to have been written with the express intent of being absurd, the worse it is, the more fun Cage can have with it. As when Sono suits him up in a black leather union suit with exploding sensors located at his neck, elbows and crotch. One wrong move, and tiny bombs will teach him a lesson.
“They say you’re a veritable phantasm,” drawls the Governor (Bill Moseley as a white-hat bad guy), addressing Hero after he’s been paraded through the streets in a buns-baring fundoshi. This scene is set on a postmodern Gion-meets-Old-West backlot set identified as Samurai Town (though there’s no evidence that any other Towns exist on this planet), where Village People cowboys cluster beneath neon signs and geisha gawk at the size of Hero’s gyro.
Beyond the city limits lies “the Ghostland,” a “Mad Max”-like dirt-scape the Governor describes as “a stretch of highway where evil reigns,” while his loose-cannon granddaughter (Yuzuka Nakaya) stands there screaming about her missing sister Bernice (Sofia Boutella). It’s all meant to be outrageous, but it’s more exhausting than anything, as the Governor explains the deal by which Hero — who’d been imprisoned for years after a bank robbery went wrong — can earn his freedom: Retrieve Bernice, who’s been kidnapped and decoupaged with bits of mannequin skin, without abusing her. Should he try to slap her, the suit is programmed to blow off one of his elbows. Think impure thoughts, and he can say goodbye to his testicles.
Three days later, in what’s meant to be a rallying cry, Hero bellows, “If you’d told me three days ago I’d be standing here with one arm and one tesssticallll trying to reason with you bitches, I would have said ‘Impossible’ too!” It’s not Shakespeare (that would be the tossed-off “Alas, poor Yorick” line), but it’s the kind of dialogue that Cage maniacs have come to expect from the actor. Meanwhile, the “bitches” to which he so refers are the “Ratman and his Rat clan,” plus a bunch of toga-clad modern-dance oddballs arranged like extras from D.W. Griffith’s “Intolerance” before an enormous clock, determined to stop time (which make’s Hero’s journey seem puny by comparison).
Don’t look for logic in Ghostland, but feel free to feast your eyes on everything else. Sono’s design sense has come a long way since the degraded-video aesthetic of 2001’s “Suicide Club.” Toshihiro Isomi’s too-busy (but admirably kooky) sets suggests a Japanese spin on the sort of recycled-future garbage dumps found in Terry Gilliam movies, where rusty plumbing and jerry-rigged Christmas lights can transform an abandoned car park into a traveling circus.
Combine those visuals with Chieko Matsumoto’s costumes and some pretty creative facial makeup, and Sono has effectively guaranteed that we’ll always have something interesting to look at, even as the brain struggles for meaning. He even makes room for a musical number, set to Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle,” which is better executed than the climactic showdown, where Bernice brings a gun to the swordfight and samurai Yasujiro (Tak Sakaguchi) can’t decide whose side he’s on.
There was a time when Cage’s longtime fans half-wished the actor would take a hiatus. These days, he makes five or six movies a year, evidently selecting his roles for maximal eccentricity (hitting the jackpot with “Mandy,” which became a midnight cult fave). In any case, better this than the days of “The Weather Man” and “The Wicker Man.” Old buddy Sean Penn once said of Cage, “He’s not an actor; he’s a performer,” and projects like these are too self-consciously out there to suggest otherwise.
Who are such movies for? Well, jaded film critics and audiences so desensitized by formula that anything this far off the rails can be forgiven for stinking, so long as it surprises. Somehow, it doesn’t actually seem surprising that Cage would partner with Sono. But the creative choices they make together, from an exploding gumball machine to endangered testicles — well, they must be seen to be believed.