Primal Is a Surprisingly Entertaining, Sincere Throwback to the Low-Budget Action Flicks of Yesteryear
When Frank Walsh (Nicolas Cage), a hunter and collector of rare and exotic animals, bags a priceless white jaguar for a zoo, he figures it’ll be smooth sailing to a big payday. But the ship bearing Frank’s precious cargo has two predators caged in its hold: the cat, and a political assassin being extradited to the U.S. After the assassin breaks free – and then frees the jaguar – Frank feverishly stalks the ship’s cramped corridors in hot pursuit of his prey, right up until the thrilling, unpredictable climax.
Director: Nick Powell
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Famke Janssen, Kevin Durand, Michael Imperioli, LaMonica Garrett, Tommy Walker, John Lewis
Language: English, Spanish
Runtime: 97 minutes
After winning an Oscar for his heartbreaking performance in 1995’s Leaving Las Vegas, someone in Hollywood decided that Nicolas Cage should be the next big action star. This decision led to mainstream smash-hits in the following years such as The Rock, Con Air, and Face/Off. While he ultimately has significantly more duds in this genre – mostly due to Cage’s infamous “I will say yes to anything” attitude – Primal is a surprisingly entertaining thriller starring the now middle-aged thespian.
Nicolas Cage plays Frank Walsh, a morally ambiguous big-game hunter on a ship home to almost-certain riches as he looks to sell the exotic animals he has caught to zoos. This plan hits a snag when the US Navy decides to bring on board captured political assassin and super soldier, Richard Loffler (Kevin Durand). Richard breaks free and Frank soon finds out that he has to save himself and the ship’s crew from the most savage animal around – man.
Primal is a sincere throwback to the low-budget action movies of the 1980s and 1990s. Instead of being tongue-in-cheek with its limitations, the film tirelessly endeavours to entertain despite them.
We don’t have the budget? It’s okay, we will use computer graphics that are at least a decade old. The punches and kicks don’t look impactful? That’s alright too, we will have the editor put those scenes on fast-forward. We can’t write dialogue? F-it, let’s just let Cage be Cage and he will come up with something.
And what he conjures up is glorious. Much like the action stars of yesteryears, one-liners are Frank’s bread-and-butter punctuation marks. It wouldn’t be accurate to describe these retorts as wisecracks – they are not puns or anything observational. They are more of crude, heat-of-the-moment insults that are only possible after a few too many drinks.
Yet Cage unfailingly turns each of these tasteless lines into gold. He takes his performance here with dead seriousness (as always), lurching at his quips with such passion and disdain that it made the film a bonafide laugh riot – most of these comebacks don’t even make sense!
The campiness of it all is only deliciously multiplied with scene after scene of Cage tussling and shepherding poorly rendered CGI animals around the ship, complete with the equally wooden and artificial performances of the film’s secondary cast. Perhaps the best thing about Primal is that Cage isn’t even the hammiest actor in the flick. Durand plays the psychotic, one-man army Loffler with acute intensity, delightfully chewing every scene he is in. By the film’s end, he made for a suitably despicable antagonist for our heroes to put down.
While most of the film’s enjoyment comes from its “so bad, it’s good” quality, there are some areas that do deserve praise. The flick’s limited budget stands out like a sore thumb throughout, especially after the seventh or eighth time its characters run up and down the same few corridors in the supposedly large cargo ship.
Primal tries to ease this by occasionally pivoting into a monster film, with its antagonist stalking the dark corners of the ship, brutally picking off its crew one by one. These moments are astonishingly suspenseful, thanks to the film’s splendid use of lighting and shadows coupled with tense sound design.
Anybody expecting the next John Wick will probably be disappointed. There is a lot in Primal that feels outdated in 2020: the damsel-in-distress, the terrible CGI, the lack of a cohesive plot. Yet throughout all of it, the flick never feels like a half-hearted cash-in; never giving its audience any less because of what it lacked. The star power of Cage definitely saves it from bargain bin purgatory – and thank goodness for that! Primal is a blast.
Primal is now showing in theatres everywhere. In the meantime, check out the film’s trailer below: