‘Primal’ Is ‘Con Air’ but With Nicolas Cage, a White Jaguar, and a Whole Lot of Booze
Yes, it’s completely nuts. But we wouldn’t have it any other way.
Primal asks, “What if Die Hard, but with Nicolas Cage and a giant white CGI jaguar on a boat?”
That description, admittedly, sells Nick Powell’s ludicrous film short, given that Primal isn’t content with merely following the basic template set by John McTiernan’s 1988 classic—there are traces of Con Air, Snakes on a Plane, Under Siege and Alien also sprinkled throughout this saga, whose weakness for lousy digital effects is only matched by its fondness for Cage’s lusty overacting. Populated by capable actors doing hammy work in a one-dimensional story that hews to every convention in the action-adventure playbook, it’s a B-movie in the purest sense of the term—and all the more fun for it.
It’s also familiar terrain for Cage, who’s spent the better part of the past decade headlining cheapo genre efforts that—save for a few notable exceptions, such as 2018’s stellar psychosexual freak-out Mandy—are beneath his considerable talents. That’s again true of Primal (in theaters and on demand Nov. 8), although there are nonetheless pleasures to be had from watching the Oscar-winning actor revel in his own over-the-top badassery. Puffing on cigars, snarling at friend and foe alike, and strutting about like the king of the jungle, he’s in his element in Primal, treating every scene as an exercise in cocksure let’s-see-you-top-that bravado.
Cage stars as big-game hunter Frank Walsh, who’s introduced sitting on a perch in a towering tree. Powell’s camera pans up the trunk to reveal first Walsh’s gut, then his reading material (Real Estate magazine), then his Indiana Jones-ish hat, and finally his bearded face, a stogie between his lips. Next to him is a dangling dead goat—bait for the real prey he hopes to bag. That beast soon arrives in the form of a rare white jaguar (“one in a million”), which leaps up and takes a huge chomp out of the deceased goat, and then tries to pounce up to Walsh’s roost, in the process shaking the man’s collection of empty liquor bottles.
The cat knocks Walsh to the ground below, but not before being stuck with a dart laced with a homemade knock-out paste. After nabbing his catch and readying it for transport, Walsh learns that this creature is known by locals as a “ghost cat” (“Phantasma!”), and was historically appeased via human sacrifices, thereby making it a literal “man-eater.” Walsh isn’t worried about this, though, because he’s just too damn awesome to be worried about anything, including his driver bailing on taking him to the dock. Heck, he even pays the guy anyway, because, you see, Walsh is a blustery rogue with a heart of gold.
At the tanker that’s set to spirit him to a zoo where he can sell his animals for a tidy profit—including two venomous snakes, a gaggle of monkeys hardwired to viciously protect their brood, and the white jaguar, which he believes will net him a small fortune—Walsh learns that he won’t be travelling alone. Instead, joining him on this transatlantic journey will be Richard Loffler (Kevin Durand), a special-ops mercenary who’s the prisoner of federal agent Paul Freed (Michael Imperioli) and naval officer Dr. Ellen Taylor (Famke Janssen). The incomprehensible reason Loffler needs a doctor to accompany him has something to do with a medical condition involving altitude. Yet like most of Primal, the particulars don’t matter; all one has to understand is that Loffler is a psychopath, which is clear from his crazy eyes, crazier lilting voice, and batshit-crazy giggling and humming.
Loffler is chained up in a cage because he’s an animal. This would be catastrophic trouble for everyone onboard if not for the fact that, as Taylor explains, Walsh is “worse than an animal.” Thus, when Loffler escapes and embarks on a killing rampage, Walsh is fortunately around to “hunt” the madman. Loffler complicates the hero’s mission by freeing his wild cargo, including the white jaguar, thereby compelling Walsh to track the beast through the ship’s empty corridors and chambers with a GPS device like he’s Ripley stalking the Xenomorph. Many incidental and expendable characters subsequently perish at the hands of the monkeys and Loffler; the captain gets bitten by a snake; and Walsh becomes extra motivated once Loffler makes things “personal” by targeting both Taylor and the dying captain’s son, Rafael (Jeremy Nazario).
Protecting that duo transforms Walsh into a de facto super-daddy, albeit an uncouth one who says things like, “It’s not how you play the game, it’s whether or not you win!” and “You federal retards!” His ridiculousness is far preferable to the expository blather that turns out to be Taylor’s sole stock-and-trade (“I’d say you have a problem with authority, Mr. Walsh,” she informatively scolds him at one point). And it’s generally married to functional action that’s all the more amusing for being choreographed and directed with stilted clunkiness. Cage moans a lot during his knife- and- fistfights with Durand, looking more than a bit winded by excessive exertion, but his gung-ho swagger and stoutness remain irresistible. As is so often the case, he elevates subpar material through sheer force of personality.
And what of the jungle cat itself? Operating with what appears to a be a relatively constrained budget, Primal employs its lethal predator judiciously, which is to say, it appears at the very beginning of the film, about midway through (during a stand-off that requires Cage to perform a valiant leap-and-tackle), and then at the end. Since it looks like it was created on a PC running Windows 95, it’s easy to understand why director Powell limits its screen time. Still, it’s a disappointment to discover that Cage spends more time bickering with dim-bulb G.I. Joes, and antagonistically flirting with the inexpressive Janssen, than he does tussling with computer-generated animals.
Then again, between Cage taunting Loffler with invitations to play shuffleboard, and ultimately biting the villain’s arm during their climactic battle (because, hello, he’s an animal!), Primal proves a sturdy showcase for its leading man’s likably whacked charisma. It delivers exactly the sort of goofy second-rate kicks promised by its premise, as well as a few more—like Cage being followed around by a pesky parrot that wants to be his friend—you didn’t realize you craved until the moment they materialized.