Nicolas Cage in: Primal
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Primal

Released in 2019 ▪ Review posted January 29, 2020

“It’s a real primal thing, watching someone get hurt. It’s funny and accessible.”

Johnny Knoxville

“So which movie should we start with?” our publisher asked at our first summit meeting to revive the Cage Match project. “It’s been four years, whatever we pick should really set the stage.” I knew what he meant. There was a lot of pressure. To many readers, Cage Match was dead and gone. An ephemeron of the past. A relic of the 2010s, lost in a crowded sea of partly completed niche projects. If we wanted to come roaring back, we needed to do it with something big, and I knew exactly what it should be—the bonkers horror comedy Mom and Dad.

It has it all! Nic, as the bad guy, attacking children with a sledgehammer, descending into seething hysterics! Selma Blair! But we quickly discovered that Mom and Dad wasn’t particularly easy to acquire and we checked…at least two popular streaming services. It was a travesty of convenience.

It couldn’t have happened at a worse time, either. We’d gathered all the key players for the summit and had committed to watch a film. I guess you could say a shame spiral began to take hold. Poor reasoning and a bit of self-loathing eventually bottomed out at a $5.99 rental of 2019’s hodgepodge action travesty, Primal. And like an untied balloon released by a dimwitted child, any newfound enthusiasm pooted out of us, over the course of 97 bewildering, upsetting, insufferable minutes.

Primal is a terrible film. It stars Christopher from The Sopranos, Jean Grey from some of the X-Men movies, a child who never emotes, Nicolas Cage, and an extremely smooth CG animated jaguar. I can’t overemphasize how shitty this digital jaguar looked. It was like a copy-paste job from Kung Fu Panda. It in no way seemed threatening or real or scary. Essentially, it was a somewhat more menacing version of the dragon from the original Pete’s Dragon. Really, aggressively low-budget.

During the agonizing exposition (which set up far too many plot threads, some of which are never resolved) I began to wonder if the whole movie was a deliberate joke. The terrible writing and editing seemed to indicate that Primal could be one of those ironic action movies. As it turned out, it wasn’t. It was just a tremendous failure in nearly every way.

But in the spirit of this project, let’s talk about Nic’s acting. Although he had very little to work with as international animal poacher Frank Walsh, he could still find significant moments of relatable humanity in the screenplay, which made me care enough about his character not to burn down my entire home to stop the movie from playing. If acting is making the words on a page “come alive,” then Nic is a reanimator. I was just invested enough to be curious about the ultimate question of the movie: Will Frank be able to sell his poached white jaguar, or will escaped psychotic assassin Loffler kill everyone on the cargo ship before they even get to Puerto Rico?

Maybe now is a good time to try to sketch out the plot. It’s basically a combination of Deep Blue Sea, Silence of the Lambs, and Con Air, where maritime Dr. Ellen Taylor (Famke Janssen) and vague government officials John Ringer (LaMonica Garrett) and Paul Freed (Michael Imperioli) escort the murderous prisoner Richard Loffler (Kevin Durand) on the same cargo ship as Nic’s animal brigade. As you can imagine, Loffler escapes captivity, and pursuing his lifelong love of chaos, sets all of Walsh’s animals free. As the movie haltingly jerks forward, characters are gradually killed by the assortment of “manhunters” onboard the ship. Apparently, there’s a twist where Freed is actually a bad guy too, but the editing and grotesque screenplay made his motivations difficult to grasp, and to be honest, nobody wanted to rewind.

The editing of the film made so much so hard to follow that judging any performance is futile. It seems possible that any performer’s best moments are on the cutting room floor. At least, that’s what I assumed when the revelation of essential plot points like “holy shit, the psychopathic criminal set an angry jaguar free on this claustrophobic ship” were met by the characters with complacency and skulking in corners, as if their initial reactions to hair-raising catastrophe had been cut for time. Or maybe a focus group hated it. Who knows? Frankly, who cares?

Cage’s performance was no tour de force. But I’ve seen Nic entirely checked out from a movie, and this wasn’t that. He had an emotional journey from lone gun to hero. It was pretty well-worn territory for a star who’s past his prime action-wise, but it was executed faithfully and with full credibility. Nic confidently rose to the occasion, painting Frank Walsh’s evolution with predictable but eye-catching colors.

Ultimately, the whole movie felt like a series of my least favorite action cliches hastily quilted together. A supposedly tense scene when Nic, Loffler, and Freed all had deadly weapons pointed at each other was defused by ludicrous dialogue that had them explicitly saying lines like, “If you shoot him, I’ll shoot you!” “But if he shoots you, I’m gonna shoot him!” It was like a Michael Scott production. A loose, meandering collection of ideas that have been used in countless other movies, with better execution.

Primal is the second team-up between Nicolas Cage and stunt coordinator-turned-director Nick Powell—their first being 2014’s Outcast (a film devotees will remember we also hated). I don’t understand why Nic keeps getting involved with Powell’s schemes. It seems like a very one-way relationship. Cage can’t be making money off of these movies, nobody is—and they can’t be artistically fulfilling either. Because of how artless they are. Maybe Cage has a soft spot for Powell? Maybe he was hypnotized by renderings of the CG jaguar and had to obey the beast’s will? I guess we’ll never know. L.A. is a weird place.

How was the movie?
Terrible
How was Nic Cage’s acting?
Passable
Did his performance make the movie worse?
No, nothing could make it worse