Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (January 23, 2020)
Arguably the king of former ďAĒ-list actors who now do anything for a buck, Nicolas Cage appeared in a whopping six movies across 2019. Primal caps that run with a direct-to-video effort that hit the shelves on New Yearís Eve.
Exotic game hunter Frank Walsh (Cage) travels to Brazil. There he captures a rare white jaguar and plans to bring it to Spain, where it will live in a zoo.
Also on board: captured political assassin Richard Loffler (Kevin Durand). When Loffler escapes custody, he releases the jaguar and other predators on the vessel, an action that forces Frank to struggle to survive.
Despite my cynical opening paragraph, I donít automatically assume that Cage solely takes projects for the money. He likely picks some that actually intrigue him from time to time.
Does Primal exist as a member of that club? I would guess no, though the basic story comes with potential.
On the surface, a movie about humans stalked by predator animals in a confined space sounds pretty exciting. Primal comes with some ďDie Hard on a Boat with Killer Cats appeal at its core.
Unfortunately, Primal never lives up to its possibilities, though it tries. Oh Lord, does it try!
We get the usual assortment of cinematic tricks here. Primal comes with a pounding score, quick cuts and various stabs at action.
None of these add up to doodly squat, however. As much as Primal thinks it brings thrills, instead it just bores.
Which remains nearly unfathomable given the material at hand. We get people trapped on a ship with wild animals and a seemingly insane assassin Ė how could that possibly wind up with a dull end product?
I donít know, but it does. Though Primal nods in the general direction of excitement, it never achieves even the most minor fun or visceral impact.
I suspect some of this stems from the movieís presumably low budget. It features a lot of computer-generated animals, and the lack of funds restricts their screentime. As such, a film in which we expect to see a jaguar stalk humans barely shows the big cat at all.
Honestly, the notion of the wild critters on the ship almost becomes a MacGuffin, as Primal concentrates much more on the havoc Loffler wreaks. At its heart, the movie contrives to provide a battle between the psycho and the hunter.
These moments donít work, as Primal fails to portray any of the roles in a compelling manner. Loffler comes across as a weird mix of Hannibal Lecter and Hans Gruber, while Walsh tends to feel like a seedier Indiana Jones.
Of course, that means the movie tosses out odd and perfunctory stabs at romantic tension between our ďheroĒ Walsh and the requisite female, Navy neurologist Dr. Ellen Taylor (Famke Janssen). They flirt in a hostile manner at times but those moments feel contrive and add nothing.
At least Cage seems to enjoy himself, which is more than I can say for his time on many of his direct-to-video efforts. While he often sleepwalks through these roles, Cage appears more ďaliveĒ here, even if he doesnít really bring much to the part.
Durand feels ill-cast as the assassin, and he canít find the roleís dark heart. As for Janssen, I couldnít judge her performance because I felt too distracted by her face.
Clearly the subject of massive amounts of cosmetic surgery, Janssen looks like she wears a plastic mask through the film, and she canít exhibit any facial expressiveness at all. Heck, it seems difficult for her to simply move her mouth at times.
Janssenís appearance didnít shock me, as Iíd already seen the damage done during 2019ís Poison Rose. However, there I became more focused on how awful Brendan Fraser looked to give Janssen too much thought.
I honestly donít like to go down the catty road that the criticism of cosmetic surgery follows. However, when this work makes it impossible to view the actor as a normal human being, it becomes noteworthy, and the fact that Janssen now looks like an anime character creates a disconnect from reality.
Even without these issues, Primal would falter. Despite a story with ample room for excitement, the movie seems flat and lifeless.