'Primal': Film Review

PRIMAL Still 1 - Nicolas Cage - Lionsgate Publicity -H 2019
Courtesy of Lionsgate
A formulaic but mostly solid B-pic that could do better with its claustrophobic setting.

Nicolas Cage plays an exotic-animal dealer who must cope with a human beast in Nick Powell's maritime action film.

What's worse than being trapped on a cargo ship in the middle of the ocean with a crazed super-assassin roaming the decks? Well, what if you had a 400-pound jaguar set loose as well? And not just any jungle predator, but one who'd been trained to crave human flesh? Add a couple more complications and you have the premise of Primal, the sophomore directing outing for longtime stunt coordinator Nick Powell. Starring Nicolas Cage as the boozy, disreputable hunter who brought the jaguar onto the ship, the film is less outrageous than it might sound — which may be unfortunate for those who smell a potential midnight-movie camp classic every time they see Cage's name on a film poster. It's a time-killer at best, but one that can be enjoyed with only occasional moments of guilt.

Cage plays Frank Walsh, a former zoo worker who now traps exotic animals and sells them to the highest bidder. He has hit the jackpot in Brazil, capturing a very rare, giant white jaguar in a brief scene that would be pretty thrilling if the CGI beast looked more like a real animal. Trucking this and many other recent finds (venomous snakes, colorful birds, monkeys and tapirs) to the nearest port town, he packs it all into the hold of a freighter piloted by Braulio Castillo hijo's Captain Morales.

Then Walsh meets the ship's other passengers: A beefy crew of U.S. Marshals transporting a high-priority prisoner back to the States. Why on earth would they move uber-assassin Richard Loffler (Kevin Durand), an associate of terrorist militias, by boat? The script has a goofy answer that neither satisfies nor leads to any useful third-act twist. But the contrivance does let the filmmakers keep a straight face while putting Walsh and his deadly menagerie in close quarters with the killer, a slew of machine-gun carrying guards and a U.S. Navy neurologist (Famke Janssen's Dr. Ellen Taylor) sent to monitor Loffler's condition.

Durand makes a diverting psychopath here, the kind of killer who, even chained up, always looks amused by some joke nobody else has heard. A team of guards led by the no-nonsense Agent Ringer (LaMonica Garrett) has built Loffler a cage in a big, empty room, and the boat's barely off shore when screenwriter Richard Leder borrows shamelessly from Silence of the Lambs — setting the killer free with the same ruse, but none of the visceral horror, we remember from Hannibal Lecter's famous escape.

Loffler creates maximum chaos for the crew to deal with, destroying the ship's communication gear and setting Walsh's most dangerous animals free. Once they understand what's happening, the ship's passengers go into lockdown, with Ringer taking charge and declaring that both Loffler and the jaguar, however valuable they might have been in cages, are now to be killed on sight.

Predictably, the men responsible for these dangerous predators (Walsh and a federal officer played by Michael Imperioli) take this news badly, and make it hard to keep a unified front in dealing with risks to the crew. Much bickering ensues, most puzzlingly between Walsh and Dr. Taylor — who disliked him immediately and keeps returning to the idea that he's not "a good man." There's zero chemistry between the two actors, and no place in this scenario for romance if there were; but Leder and Powell make half-hearted nods in the direction of love/hate antagonism, as if hoping to milk Janssen's casting for some incongruous sex appeal. Maybe they're just anticipating the film's end, thinking it'll be easy to wrap things up with a tease that Taylor and Walsh will meet again.

If they survive, that is. Though it could make better use of its claustrophobic terrain, the film nicely rations action out as Loffler picks off the men trying to kill him. Puzzlingly, the big cat goes AWOL for a while, as if the screenplay doesn't know how to keep threat levels high on both the human and feline fronts; when the time comes for Cage to play great-white-hunter, viewers will likely want more. But no film involving Nicholas Cage and a blowgun with curare-tipped darts can be all bad, and Primal gives us at least a little of everything we'd want in this kind of yarn.

Production company: Pimienta Film Co.
Distributor: Lionsgate
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Famke Janssen, Kevin Durand, LaMonica Garrett, Michael Imperioli, Sewell Whitney, Braulio Castillo hijo, Jeremy Nazario
Director: Nick Powell
Screenwriter: Richard Leder
Producers: Jeff Bowler, Daniel Grodnik
Executive producers: Alastair Burlingham, Randy Charach
Director of photography: Vern Nobles
Editor: Raul Marchand Sanchez
Composer: Guillaume Roussel
Casting directors: Patricia Alonso, Nancy Nayor

R, 96 minutes