Written by: Richard Leder
Directed by: Nick Powell
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Famke Janssen, and Kevin Durand
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
The Ultimate Hunter vs. The Ultimate Predator
Many movies underwhelm simply because we’ve seen them (or something an awful lot like them) before. That old adage that a familiar story can still well-told has its merits, but it’s also true that a familiar story re-told in uninspiring fashion might be the worst chores to endure. Lurking just behind those duds is something like Primal, which certainly doesn’t lack for originality, yet still lands with a thud because it doesn't have the effort or resources to pull it off. To my knowledge, Primal is the only movie where you can watch Nicolas Cage play a big game hunter who finds himself trapped on a boat with his own prey and a deranged serial killer. You’d assume a movie could coast on that premise alone, but this is a reminder that even the most outlandish concepts don’t work without the proper conviction guiding them. Primal is all about posturing the vague notion of “batshit insanity,” but it’s ultimately a lot of bluster.
To its credit, the film all but invites you to recalibrate your expectations almost immediately with an opening prologue set in the Brazilian rainforest, where the notorious Frank Walsh (Cage) stalks a rare, almost mythical white jaguar. It’d be an intense scene if the creature was the least bit convincing, but it’s a weightless, shoddily rendered CGI effect that sucks the life right out of the picture. Things don’t grow much better: after being berated by the locals for capturing an animal some believe to be a god, Walsh boards a boat headed to the States. Also on-board is Richard Loffler (Kevin Durand), a psychotic ex-Marine who’s being extradited via ship because a medical condition prevents him from flying. Using this to his advantage, the cunning maniac hatches an escape plan that involves unleashing Walsh’s captured animals. Naturally, only Frank himself is equipped to Loffler down and preserve his big pay day by keeping the animals alive.
Again, you just glance at the different pieces in place here, and it’s obvious why Primal would land on anyone’s radar. Forgetting even for a moment that Cage has appeared in a lot of questionable stuff in recent years, you don’t have to stretch to see the appeal of a movie where he’s fighting A.) big ass animals and B.) an unhinged maniac in Durand, who almost feels like his manic doppelganger. If you told me that Durand was instructed to pretty much mimic Cage’s turn as Castor Troy from Face/Off, I would absolutely believe it. He has the permanent wide-eyed expressions, exaggerated gesticulations, little tics—pretty much everything you might expect from Cage himself, assuming Cage only played the internet meme version of himself.
Of course, he’s more than just that, and Primal emphatically proves that there’s only one Nicolas Kim Coppola. This isn’t one of his most bombastic performances, but he’s quite lively as Walsh, an unrepentant asshole who, yes, has a heart of gold lurking beneath his blusterous façade. He blisters through each scene with a mix of contempt and annoyance at, well, everything. He thinks just about everyone involved with Loffler’s imprisonment are ineffectual jackasses, which is why he quickly brandishes his hunting rifle when the maniac gets loose. He charms the on-board doctor (Famke Janssen) with a cocksure glimmer in his eye, insisting that he’s the bad boy her father always warned her about. He even has a rivalry with a goddamn parrot, which I am choosing to believe is a homage to L.L. Cool J in Deep Blue Sea. You cannot prove me wrong.
I’m probably making Primal sound a lot more fun than it is. While Cage and/or Durand are in nearly every scene, they’re not enough to elevate the film above an otherwise mundane vision for this sort of thing. Nick Powell’s direction is unremarkable, and the script doesn’t do much to compensate. You can get away with either a threadbare premise or uninspired direction, but not both. Primal is the most basic version of this story imaginable: the action mostly amounts to paramilitary officers and Cage stalking the ship, firing off-screen at Durand, who returns the favor accordingly. Urgency is fairly non-existent, despite the presence of both huge animals and a maniac stalking a fairly decent—if not familiar—set of characters. For example, you have a pair of lower-deck workers who work up a nice rapport, but you know at least one of them is expendable. Likewise, another subplot involves another character’s battle to stay alive after a venomous snake bites him, but it mostly amounts to Janssen and the man’s child standing around, taking orders from Cage.
But, you might be wondering, isn’t there an abundance of carnage involving the plethora of wild beasts aboard the ship? A fair assumption, to be sure, but also one that will inevitably lead you to disappointment. Unfortunately, the creatures carry no weight: they’re mostly just digital noise, dangling around the margins of the film, constantly offering the suggestion that maybe Primal could be more fun once they’re actually involved. Perhaps sensing that the budget couldn’t possibly do them justice, the filmmakers mostly treat them as an afterthought. When the fabled ghost jaguar does get involved with the climax, it’s still a let-down because the effects are lackluster—or even non-existent when it comes to allowing the audiences to enjoy the carnage. Durand is especially hung out to dry here: he spends the entirety of the film crafting this despicable heel, only for Powell to leave his grisly fate off-screen.
Simply put, there’s just not nearly enough excitement for a movie that features so many insane elements on the page. You can’t help but wonder what Primal might have looked like 25 years ago, when Hollywood was properly investing in this sort of action movie nonsense. I mean, they gave Steven Seagal millions of dollars to fuck around on a boat and a train, and it ruled. It’s a shame something like Primal didn’t get a fair shot, as it feels exactly like the type of thing you’d expect to just glut video store shelves or streaming platform menus. It’s not a film so much as it’s just prefabricated content that seems just interesting enough to grab some eyeballs before it unfolds diligently and predictably. Everything about it deserves better, from the weirdly overqualified cast to the critters who go largely ignored. Primal is perhaps an unintended side effect of an era where content is king: its mere existence is supposed to be enough, and it’s not too terribly far removed from the rash of hyper-aware no-budget creature features that have rankled for damn near a decade now. Mercifully, this one isn’t poking fun at its own expense; then again, it isn’t really having any fun at all.
Primal is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from Lionsgate home entertainment with a behind-the-scenes featurette as a supplement.
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