“Primal” begins the way that every movie should begin: With a bearded Nicolas Cage sitting in a tree somewhere deep in the Brazilian jungle while smoking a cigar, reading “Real Estate” magazine, and waiting for a rare white jaguar known as “El Fantasma Gato” (“The Ghost Cat”) to emerge from the trees and eat the goat carcass that’s strung up on the ground below. Sadly — if inevitably — this schlocky genre mishmash is all downhill from there, as not even a fun premise and a talking parrot sidekick can save the movie from its low budget, general lethargy, and abject lack of craft.
The best thing that “Primal” has going for it (beyond its truly incredible poster) is a premise that harkens back to the glory days of dopey ’90s action films — a beautiful time when B-movie directors were high out of their minds on the promise of CGI, and used such digital tools to add new dimensions to otherwise staid ideas. Stephen Sommers’ “Deep Rising” is perhaps the most divine example: Just when you think you’re watching a routine Treat Williams vehicle about a team of mercenaries who have to shoot their way out of a luxury cruise ship, a giant sea monster shows up to eat half the cast and put everyone on their heels.
“Primal” has a similar trick up its sleeve, but Richard Leder’s script is too threadbare to conjure any of the same magic, and director Nick Powell — a longtime stunt coordinator stepping behind the camera for the first time — finds a way to sap the suspense out of every scene. Also, the CG is somehow even less convincing than it was 21 years ago, but at least there’s a lot more of it. Cage exudes a palpable “Bogart on benzedrine” vibe as prickly loner Frank Walsh, a former zoo worker who became a freelance game hunter after being fired from eight jobs in 10 years. Say what you will about zoos, but that’s still a mighty tumble down the moral ladder, and it’s left Frank with a deep self-loathing that he’s been trying to drink away ever since.
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But things are looking up for our man: He’s bagged The Ghost Cat, a mythic devil who’s supposedly hungry for human blood, and a zoo outside of Madrid is willing to pay him $75,000 for it so long as he can deliver the animal to them in one piece. That will prove to be a lot harder than it sounds. Frank has the misfortune of loading his precious cargo (which also includes a family of wooly spider monkeys, some exotic birds, and a few hyper-venomous snakes for good measure) aboard an old tramp freighter called the Mimer, a dank floating warehouse that also happens to be ferrying the world’s craziest assassin back to the United States so that he can stand trial for crimes against humanity. His name is Richard Loffler, he’s played by Kevin Durand, and he’s flamboyantly psychotic in a way that really wants to excuse the fact that he isn’t anything else; there’s some amusingly undercooked mishegoss about holding the American government accountable for Richard’s actions, but that subplot is lost at sea along with the rest of this movie.
Anyway, Richard escapes from his cage in about 15 seconds using the oldest trick in the book (apparently none of the Special Operations Group United States Marshals assigned to him have seen “Con Air”), and he frees all of the other animals on board as a distraction while he trees to reroute the ship and secure his escape. Just like that, the Mimer is turned into a floating menagerie of feral beasts; if they don’t kill you, the machine gun-wielding sociopath probably will. And while the boat is full of disposable meatheads who Richard can murder every couple of minutes, Frank takes it upon himself to lead the hunt: He’s finally found some prey that he can feel good about catching. Frank doesn’t have to be a hero, he just has to be the second-worst person on this ship. Baby steps!
But “Primal” doesn’t really care about any of that. The movie immediately devolves into a lifeless game of cat-and-mouse-and-jaguar, as Richard wreaks havoc around the boat while the rest of the cast stands around a series of jaundiced-looking rooms and yells at each other about what to do next. Powell made the admirable decision to shoot inside a real freighter, but verisimilitude only gets you so far in a location that only consists of blandly industrial spaces. And despite Powell’s stunt background, the action is so bland and choppy that you desperately wish there’d be less of it; it’s telling that the most exciting part of the entire movie comes when Richard chooses not to fight someone.
The calmer moments are somehow just as chaotic, albeit in a different way, as the ensemble cast — including “Deep Rising” star Famke Janssen as a military doctor, Michael Imperioli as a scummy lawyer, and Jeremy Nazario as a little kid whose only purpose is to be put in harm’s way — all pop up without rhyme or reason, and cease to exist as soon as the camera cuts away. Cage’s only meaningful human interaction in the entire film is with his parrot. And that only happens in the final seconds, by which point Frank has already perfectly described the experience of watching “Primal”: “I just spent 10 months in the jungle, and this all smells like cat shit to me.”
“Primal” is now playing in theaters and on VOD.