Despite’s Nicolas Cage‘s prolific 40-year career, his recent penchant for indie movies has condemned him to a mixed bag of box office bombs (Between Worlds, 211, Vengeance: A Love Story) and critically-acclaimed hits that nobody sees (Mandy, Color Out of Space). Primal, his latest project, is equally spotty.
While the film aims for the heights of Cage’s tentpole blockbuster days, it doesn’t quite make it. But as long as you’re willing to hang on tight and enjoy the incongruous premise, unpalatable characters and recycled action movie clichés, it’s a surprisingly thrilling slice of formulaic fun.
Essentially a reworking of Steven Seagal’s Under Siege, but with the additional peril of exotic wild animals à la Snakes on a Plane, Primal casts Cage as Frank Walsh, an obnoxious, curmudgeonly poacher who tries to transport his collection of magnificent beasties – including a rare and priceless white jaguar – back to America on a cargo ship. However, much to his chagrin, the liner is commandeered by the CIA at the last minute in order to extradite a highly-skilled political assassin. As you might have guessed, what was meant to be a calm voyage home turns into a seafaring nightmare when the military prisoner breaks free and releases Frank’s deadly posse: venomous snakes, irritable monkeys, the priceless “ghost jag” and a too-chatty-for-its-own-good parrot that shares more than a few memorable exchanges with Cage.
At this stage in his career, the veteran actor is not as agile as he once was. An early close-up centred on his pot belly doesn’t help matters, either. Cage ultimately forfeits the spotlight to his on-screen nemesis, Kevin Durand, whose electric performance as a deranged assassin is in a league of its own. They’re both genuinely talented actors, but what sets the two apart is the fact that Cage takes his performance deadly seriously, whereas Durand sees the script for what it is and plays everything with his tongue firmly pressed against his cheek – exactly as Cage (and John Travolta) did back in 1997’s cat-and-mouse thriller Face/Off.
It’s not all one-sided though and after Cage forges a friendship with Famke Janssen’s Dr. Ellen Taylor, the narrative injects some much-needed candour that has us rooting for the initially unlikeable protagonist.
In terms of plot, Primal runs similarly to a lot of other B-movie genre flicks, but the final half hour manages to fox with a couple of unexpected twists. We won’t spoil those here, but the more frenetic scenes are competently staged and come with a good dollop of gore.
Ultimately, Primal is as bonkers as a seafaring Nicolas Cage creature feature sounds. It’s full of unintentionally laugh-out-loud moments, but director Nick Powell’s elaborately staged set pieces combine well with writer Richard Leder’s unpredictable script. It’s got nothing on Con Air, Face/Off or even Under Siege, but it’s still a blast to see Cage in something with almost as much chaotic energy as the films of his ’80s and ’90s heyday.
- Director: Nick Powell
- Starring: Nicolas Cage, Famke Janssen, Kevin Durand
- Release Date: 5 November 2019 (Cage-a-rama Film Festival Glasgow)