Nick Powell’s new film Primal stars Nicolas Cage as a big-game hunter and Kevin Durand as a psychotic soldier-turned-killer.
As I sit down to write the piece you’re currently reading, I realize that I’ve written precious little about Nicolas Cage in the last decade or so. It’s no great loss, in all honesty. Lots of people have written lots of things about a body of work that wouldn’t inspire a great deal of critical thought were it not for the fact that Cage comes completely unhinged for at least a few moments in each of these movies. Broadly speaking, the films of Nicolas Cage since 2011 (the year after which they only intermittently saw theatrical release) come in two formats: gonzo bugfuck genre experiences in which Cage’s brand of lunacy is a requirement (Mandy, Dog Eat Dog, his forthcoming collaboration with Sion Sono), and more down-the-middle B-grade efforts that recycle commonly used tropes and in which the male lead could conceivably be any square-jawed, middle-aged white actor currently going through a bad time.
The appeal of these movies, most of the time, is not inherent to the material. It comes from what Cage decides to do (or, in some cases, not do) with whatever bog-standard character he’s given. There’s a definite panning-for-gold aspect to watching these movies, which are rarely subversive, auteurist or revealing of anything in any way. Most of these movies are made to be released as quietly as possible and slipped into the iTunes menu for a while before eventually bubbling up to the Netflix surface some months down the line. Nick Powell’s Primal is definitely in the latter category. Although, to its credit, the film’s ambitions are running a little higher than the average rainy Louisiana-shot neo-noir thriller that usually employs Cage.
Frank Walsh (Cage) is a big-game hunter who spends months on end in the jungle trapping animals that he then sells to zoos. (I don’t think that’s how zoos work, but I cannot conceive that Primal is intended as an exposé of dubious practices in the zoology realm.) Walsh is returning to society with a real catch (pun intended): a rare white jaguar that he intends to trade in for a serious paycheque. In order to bring the jaguar (and innumerable parrots, monkeys and other screeching, hollering product) back to civilization, however, Walsh has to share a cargo boat with Richard Loffler (Kevin Durand), a psychotic soldier-turned-killer who is being extradited back to the United States and, for whatever bullshit reason, can’t be flown in. Perpetually drunk and somewhat belligerent, Walsh isn’t particularly keen on sharing his precious cargo space with Public Enemy #1, which becomes doubly obvious when Loffler fakes a seizure, kills a couple of guards and gets loose on the ship.
It’s kind of an unbeatable concept. Even if we kind of know where the movie is going to go from minute one, it’s very hard to resist the promise of a psychotic killer stalking through a boat while also potentially being stalked himself by a giant jaguar and a drunk Nicolas Cage in a safari hat. Alas, Primal’s sell-by date is far in the past — not so much because the concept is dated as much as that Hollywood simply does not allot the appropriate budgets for this kind of project anymore. At nearly every turn, Primal winds up being undone by a lack of resources. It would be difficult to pull off the kind of animal-based mayhem the film promises even with a sizeable budget, but since Primal is mainly set in the dark recesses of the ship’s lower levels, it soon turns into a pretty standard action-thriller — not to mention that the CGI animals are only marginally convincing and thus used rather sparingly.
It’s not hard to imagine the late-’90s version of this movie, with pretty much exactly the same cast (though Durand would probably be swapped out for John Malkovich) but a significantly more polished image. Primal is competently put together if aggressively filtered — most scenes are covered in a piss-yellow film that suggests the cinematographer is attempting to make everything look like it is being witnessed by late-’90s Bono’s sunglasses — but its limitations are obvious every step of the way.
That having been said, there are still plenty of B-grade thrills to be gleaned from Primal, starting with Cage’s performance. Though he’s essentially out-paced in terms of pure tic concentration by Durand, it’s a little more of a character performance than he’s gotten us used to in movies like this. Unburdened by the increasingly unnecessary limitations of being a typical leading man (confident, sexy, steely, in full control… you know, all of these things that Nicolas Cage never really conveyed to begin with), Cage slips into a slurring, unshaven zone previously inhabited by Humphrey Bogart and Robert Mitchum. It means a lot less of the outbursts one has come to expect (he does not, to my great chagrin, yell about beef at the top of his lungs as he did in A Score to Settle) but there is an inherent charm to even this version of Cage.
Standards for DTV Nicolas Cage movies are low, I’ll give you that. Sometimes they’re so low that the highpoint of said movie is everything that happens before you actually start watching it. Primal is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a movie that will go down in history for any reason. It is a movie that I finished watching maybe an hour before writing these words and that I have already begun to forget. Sometimes, I feel like we should hold low-budget / escapist / willfully commercial movies like this one to higher standards — that simply “not being shit” isn’t exactly praise — but this time, I feel like the fact that Primal isn’t shit speaks volumes. ■
Primal is on VOD as of Tuesday, July 28. See more about the film here, and watch the trailer below:
For more film reviews and features, see our Film & TV section.