These days, Nicolas Cage doesn’t say no to roles very often. However, for every acclaimed turn in fare like “Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse” or “Mandy,” there are about a half dozen cheaply made, largely straight-to-VOD movies whose titles you probably never heard of. The actor, who hasn’t always been the model of financial responsibility, has been candid that sometimes he takes gigs just because he needs the money. While you probably won’t be surprised to find out that “Primal” falls squarely into that category, you’ll likely be disappointed to learn that the film doesn’t live up to its wacky, thoroughly Cage-esque premise. What should be an easy opportunity for Cage to rage winds up a mostly routine and muted affair thanks to the seriousness with which everyone takes this silly, low-rent effort.
The story reads like it was grabbed from the scraps of a few different games of Mad Libs. Cage plays the sturdily named Frank Walsh, a no-nonsense hunter of rare species, who makes his coin selling his captures to zoos. This time, he’s hit the jackpot, bagging the elusive white jaguar in the jungles of South America, that according to local legend, has developed a taste for human flesh. All Frank sees is dollar signs, and is ready to take a freighter back to America, and sell his prized cat. A wrinkle in his plans arrives in the form of Richard Loffler, played by expert creepy guy Kevin Durand. He’s a former special ops-mercenary turned soldier of fortune/terrorist, who specializes in killing people in spectacularly gruesome ways and is wanted for a litany of crimes. He’s hauled in by a group of feds led by Michael Imperioli, who force their way onto the ship, to bring Loffler back to America to stand trial. Along for the ride is Dr. Ellen Taylor (Famke Janssen), who is there in case Loffler has a seizure, due to some incomprehensible medical condition that really serves as a plot device so that he can break free, let loose all of Frank’s animals on the ship (including killer monkeys and venomous snakes), and cause some havoc. Of course, the highly trained feds are no match for Loffler, so it’ll be up to the grumpy, self-serving Walsh to catch him. But just don’t kill his cat.
It’s a lot of plot — a lot of thoroughly dopey plot. Unfortunately, no one seems to recognize that fact. “Primal” even dares to cut now and again to jaguar cam. That’s right, we see the action through the eyes of the cat, for no real discernible reason — but it’s definitely a choice. A thoroughly dopey choice. Hell, Walsh even has a parrot sidekick, a detail that’s set up as a running gag and then quickly abandoned.
All the ingredients are here for an enjoyably dumb B-movie riff using lazy Cliff’s Notes from “Wages Of Fear,” “Alien” (Walsh even has a tracker to follow the jaguar, which the film underutilizes), and “Hannibal.” And yet, it’s all taken way too seriously. If “Primal” had just the slightest touch of self-awareness it might’ve been a perfectly decent time-waster, with a couple of Cage-worthy moments. Alas, the filmmakers chose not to go down that road.
Perhaps trying to seize the ring of opportunity while they had it, the team behind the camera seems to have wanted to earnestly make the most of this. Director Nick Powell is a stunt coordinator by day, but here helms his sophomore effort five years following his debut, 2014’s forgotten period action flick “Outcast,” also starring Cage. Meanwhile, and perhaps most tellingly, screenwriter Richard Leder, who has mostly worked in TV movies, here sees his first feature screenplay produced in over a decade. “Primal” certainly feels like it’s from another era, where this kind of modest movie might’ve been a mid-budget programmer at a major studio. It would also explain the clunky, clichéd dialogue.
At any rate, a few more dollars would’ve gone a long way, as the ropey CGI for the white jaguar only adds to the air of despair that everyone is really trying. The combination of lousy special effects and the sincerity with which this ridiculous material is being taken only compounds the tedium that starts to set in as “Primal” lumbers into its second half. The film’s attempts to create a redemption arc for Frank, along with a thoroughly implausible, barely sketched romance with Dr. Taylor only adds to the miscalculation of the entire endeavor.
The internet seems to love it anytime Cage gets unhinged (he’s a meme machine), but his self-proclaimed “Nouveau shamanic” style of acting only works when the rest of the film falls into sync with him. It’s never much fun to watch an actor trying something different when the rest of the movie isn’t willing to take the same risk, even when it’s someone as unpredictable as Cage. For all of the delightfully deranged places “Primal” could’ve gone, it stays drearily buttoned up. [D]