Maybe 20 years ago, with properly engaged movie stars and slightly better writing, this could have been a modest studio hit.
Nicolas Cage’s late period filmography is shaped as much by his own wildman theatrics as by his unpredictable financial needs, so any new film with his face on the cover is liable to be batshit crazy in either a beautiful or irritating way. His latest, Primal, splits the difference between the two, finding intermittent moments of Cage’s undeniable brilliance amidst the din of barely passable DTV garbage that makes up much of the runtime.
Based on a spec script from the ‘90s, Cage plays Frank Walsh, an eccentric, rare-animal hunter traveling by ship to sell a white jaguar he just captured to the highest bidder. He’s on the same ship as Loffler (Kevin Durand), a world-renowned assassin being transported to justice. When Loffler inevitably breaks out of captivity and turns the boat into the skyscraper from Die Hard, Walsh has to protect his animal cargo and hunt down the killer himself.
But what could be a high-concept thriller with an absurdist streak comes undone by shoddy screenwriting. Sure, in terms of setup, the ridiculous cast of characters is established pretty efficiently. From Michael Imperioli’s steadfast federale to Famke Janssen’s doctor, there are more than enough interesting supporting players for the survivalist aspect of the narrative to have intrigue. It’s just that beyond setting up this cartoonish kill box for the film to take place in, the rest of the story is thrown together with reckless abandon.
There’s literally a scene where Walsh asks Imperioli’s character who Loffler is and why he’s being kept under lock and key only to be told it’s classified. Then Imperioli just tells him the entire expository diatribe anyway for absolutely no reason! There’s some shifting allegiances and confusing twists, but ultimately, this is a TV-movie-level production jazzed up with a handful of big names and some surprisingly decent CGI imagery, namely the white jaguar Walsh catches that’s about as realistic as the gator from Crawl but less compelling.
No, this is a movie centering primarily around two performances: the exhausting and try-hard “nutjob” turn from Durand and the lazy but captivating one from Cage. Loffler is just an irritating composite of every unhinged killer in every other movie ever made and it’s easily the worst performance of Durand’s pretty versatile career. But Cage, while not chewing the scenery or having his usual brand of fun, is nonetheless entertaining as a curmudgeonly hunter who curses and snipes at everyone he meets and just cares about making money and feeding his rare animals.
At its best, Primal calls to mind Adam Sandler’s Netflix originals, where it’s clear the actor is just going on vacation to different locals and hoping the creatives around him can put together a movie from the exploits. Here, Cage is just grunting a lot and looking annoyed, the closest thing to a “paycheck performance” one can get from an artist this weird and temperamental.
Maybe 20 years ago, with properly engaged movie stars and slightly better writing, this could have been a modest studio hit. But in this current form, the execution leaves Primal a mild curio for Cage completists and little else.