The one advantage of Nicolas Cage starring in approximately 87 straight-to-video movies a year for the past decade is that he sometimes adds a bit of unique flavor to rote thrillers and action movies that would otherwise be entirely forgotten. Cage doesn’t bring much to the table in Primal, though, playing a military veteran who hunts and captures exotic animals for zoos around the world. Cage’s Frank Walsh has just bagged an ultra-rare white jaguar in the Brazilian rainforest (we know this because onscreen titles read “rainforest Brazil”) and is transporting it along with some venomous snakes, angry monkeys and other, less dangerous animals on a cargo ship bound for Puerto Rico and then Mexico.
But this particular ship is also, for reasons that are both complicated and largely irrelevant, transporting rogue government assassin Richard Loffler (Kevin Durand), who is being taken back to the U.S to stand trial for vaguely defined “crimes against humanity” (mostly killing the wrong people). Durand gives the kind of manic, scenery-chewing performance that people most expect from Cage these days, first with his Hannibal Lecter-style taunts while he’s shackled inside a cage in the ship’s cargo hold, and then with some standard villain monologuing after he breaks free and starts terrorizing the crew.
Loffler also sets all of Frank’s dangerous animals loose, but despite the “Cage vs. jaguar” hook that is being relied on to sell the movie, there isn’t a whole lot of gnarly animal action. That’s at least partially because the animals (especially the jaguar) are phony-looking CGI creations, who are less menacing every time they’re shown. An annoying parrot who follows Frank around gets far more screen time than the jaguar, and more character development than most of the humans.
The supporting cast includes Famke Janssen as a doctor/Naval lieutenant/half-hearted love interest, and Michael Imperioli as a slimy government operative who cares more about keeping secrets than about keeping the people on the ship safe from Loffler. Janssen, in either an ill-fitting wig or a disastrous haircut, is especially wasted, stuck with wan flirtatious banter and a last-act turn into a damsel in distress. She and Cage have no chemistry, and her support of Frank’s redemption arc is as perfunctory as the flirtation.
But no one comes to a movie like this to see romance or personal growth. The best that a movie like Primal can offer is some gritty, brutal action sequences, but the fights between Frank and Loffler are pretty weak, and director Nicholas Powell (a veteran stunt coordinator who previously helmed another anonymous Cage thriller, 2014’s Outcast) doesn’t stage any exciting set pieces. Virtually the entire movie takes place on the ship, and most of the scenes involve characters skulking around dimly lit corridors and stairwells, jumping at loud noises.
Say what you will about Cage’s choice in roles (widely reported to be the result of his financial irresponsibility), but he often gives his all to even the most worthless trash, and here he does his best to make screenwriter Richard Leder’s functional dialogue into something off-kilter and intriguing. Frank isn’t exactly an interesting character, but Cage’s performance makes him seem like he could be an interesting person, somewhere just beyond the margins of what actually happens in the movie. It’s not enough to make Primal worth watching, but it is enough to hold out hope for at least a couple of Cage’s next 87 bargain-basement thrillers.