Animal attack movies have been out of favor for a while now as filmmakers and audiences came eventually came to realize how wrong it is to endanger and mistreat animals for our entertainment. (Now if only they’d stop doing it for other reasons.) Visual effects have tried to pick up the slack with mostly unimpressive and/or humorous results, but films like this year’s excellent Crawl have shown it’s more than possible to deliver thrills, fun, and animal-induced carnage with a combination of filmmaking talent and stellar CG f/x. Primal lacks both of those elements, but it does have a secret weapon in the form of Nicolas Cage so it’s not a total wash.
Frank Walsh (Cage) is a boozy capitalist who makes his bank by trapping exotic animals and selling them to the highest bidders for whatever purpose they see fit, and his latest find is a white jaguar guaranteed to net him a serious payday. He and the big cat board a container ship along with numerous other animals he’s captured on the trip, but they’re not the only last minute passengers. Government agents join as well with a highly dangerous mercenary (Kevin Durand) in shackles, and if you’re thinking the combination of deadly animals and even deadlier killer aboard a ship on the high seas is bad news for everyone else, well, you’re right.
Director Nick Powell is a renowned stunt man/action director, but his sophomore film is somewhat lacking in those very areas leaving Primal a surprisingly flat genre experience in its back half. The premise holds such promise, but Richard Leder‘s script seems more interested in the concept than the execution and Powell’s direction follows in line. Rather than use the confines of the ship’s hull to claustrophobic effect the film settles for a bland sameness, and the action beats are rarely more exciting. Still, Cage cracking on about wild animals as an immoral vagabond destined for a change of heart? He makes the film’s first half fun enough.
Primal is the fifth of six Cage releases this year — and he already has a half dozen in various stages of production for 2020 — and while one of the six is currently making the festival rounds (Color Out of Space) the others are all direct-to-video releases. It would be an impressive feat if any of the movies were all that good, but Cage’s inability to say no to a project continues to land him in forgettable waters. While A Score to Settle, Running With the Devil, and Kill Chain are all fairly interchangeable, though, Primal at least has the added hook of killer animals which bring some thrills and allow for some fun. Cage’s performance is lacking in memorable acting or unforgettable freak-outs, but he still manages a few choice exchanges with elevated tones of voice including “I’m not going anywhere until I feed my animals” and “You kill my cat, I’ll blow your head off.” He seems to be enjoying himself, and that muted joy goes a long way.
Unfortunately, the film loses interest in the beasts far too quickly in order to shift the “fun” over to the human hunting them all — seriously, the damn jaguar goes AWOL for a fairly noticeable stretch of time — and while Durand is always a charismatic villain he’s stuck in fairly uninteresting game of hide and seek (and kill) in the ship’s dull and overly similar hallways and engine rooms. While it lasts, though, the animal carnage is entertaining with its blend of mediocre CG and death. Snake bites, parrot squawks, and a cook torn apart by monkeys in the kitchen keep the film’s second act afloat more than anything else does, but the film too often pulls back for bland dialogue exchanges and exposition with a cast that also includes Michael Imperioli and Famke Janssen.
When Primal focuses on Cage and his uncaged beasts it manages to deliver enough silly fun to stand apart from his other releases this year, but it too often chooses to spend time with its human cast instead. Did I just call Cage inhuman? Maybe. Fans know what I’m talking about, and if you count yourself among them this is an adventure worth taking. Just don’t expect to book a repeat trip anytime soon.