“Primal” isn’t just a title that’s been used many times, it’s now a movie that seems to have put several prior movies in a food processor — to results that are edible, but unsurprisingly don’t taste like anything in particular, let alone induce a desire for seconds. This first directorial feature by longtime stunt coordinator Nicholas Powell stars the inescapable Nicolas Cage (in at least his fifth film of the year) as a grumpier Indiana Jones-type adventurer on a boat with dangerous wild animals as well as a world-class terrorist on the loose.
That this mashup of too many familiar action-thriller elements doesn’t emerge a generic mess is a credit to all involved. That it’s passably entertaining but also instantly forgettable comes as less of a surprise.
The stale musk of bad latterday jungle movies like “Congo” hangs over the initial going, when Cage’s professional hunter Frank Walsh is in the Brazilian rainforest trapping critters to sell to zoos. Though he’s nearly killed doing it, he has extraordinary luck bagging an ultra-rare white jaguar that will no doubt send buyers’ bidding into the stratosphere. As he prepares to transport his haul back to the States, however, he’s irked to find his driver has quit — this feline is a fabled “ghost cat” which villagers used to fear (and to whom they’d sacrifice children to appease), and they superstitiously refuse to participate in its removal. Walsh condescendingly laughs off such concerns as Club Med-worthy tropical party music plays, setting a smirking retro-colonialist tone that fortunately the film soon abandons, more or less.
Walsh is unhappy to discover that for various reasons the cargo ship on which he’s freighting his menagerie to Puerto Rico contains another beastly passenger: Richard Loffler (Kevin Durand), a grinning mercenary assassin whose numerous “crimes against humanity” are getting him returned Stateside for trial. Despite medical issues that require the presence of a Navy neurologist (Famke Janssen’s Dr. Ellen Taylor), he’s considered so hazardous that he’s kept heavily shackled in a cage below deck, guarded by a phalanx of U.S. Marshalls led by no-nonsense Ringer (LaMonica Garrett). The latter doesn’t take kindly to insubordination, so naturally he and potty-mouthed bad boy Walsh soon get on each other’s last nerves.
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At the half-hour point they have worse things to worry about, however, as to the surprise of everyone save the audience, Loffler manages to get loose. In a trice he’s begun killing military personnel and crew, dumped the ship’s freshwater supply, disabled its controls, re-set its route, destroyed the lifeboat, blocked outside communication, and commandeered weapons. He’s also liberated Walsh’s fauna, including not just that rather-too-obviously-CGI 400-lb. kitty. There are also poisonous snakes, angry monkeys and more that might now be lurking around any corner not harboring a lethal terrorist.
TV movie veteran Richard Leder’s screenplay is brisk and eventful, albeit over-packed with stock elements — including a plucky kid (Jeremy Nazario as the son of Braulio Castillo hijo’s Captain), a shifty Fed with a hidden agenda (Michael Imperioli), even a wisecracking parrot — so cluttered together they have no room to develop any personality of their own. Despite Powell’s stunt background, the action isn’t all that vivid or exciting, with some notably unconvincing mano-a-mano fight scenes.
Still, it all moves along slickly and tolerably enough. Powell and his collaborators have created a piece of formulaic escapism that’s professionally expert in all major packaging departments. If the movie lacks much in the way of tense atmosphere, let alone a distinctive sensibility, well, those are things that don’t necessarily arrive fully formed one’s first time in the director’s chair. There was certainly potential for “Primal” to be a more playfully bonkers exercise, given its improbable pileup of perils. But this film plays it safe, neither taking itself too seriously nor daring to accentuate its absurdity — which makes for 90 minutes or so of busy entertainment that starts fading from memory once the final credits roll.
Cage’s crankypants act here is a little wearing. He doesn’t seem to like his character much, and neither do we. But then, this is not the kind of exercise that requires, or even has much use for, better-than-adequate performances. Everyone does as well as needed in one-dimensional roles, many of which are filled out primarily by the actors’
physical brawn. For better or worse, “Primal” is one of those movies where you imagine most of the cast doing weightlifting sets between takes. And probably more than a few eventual viewers will find it just the sort of predictable popcorn time-filler suitable for watching with less than 100% of their attention as they work out, text or make dinner.