Shitty Movie Sundays: Primal (2019)

Nicolas Cage returns to Shitty Movie Sundays with a flick that was released just this past month, although one would be hard-pressed to find a theater that’s shown it.

Primal comes to us from screenwriter Richard Leder and director Nick Powell. Cage stars as Frank Walsh, a selfish, world-weary wiseass who hunts and captures wild animals to sell to zoos.

Like in every shitty movie he’s been in, Cage overacts. He can’t seem to help himself, and that’s fine with this shitty movie fan. Often, especially in revenge flicks, Cage plays melancholy so deep its laughable. Not in this flick, though. His Frank Walsh character is just as damaged as any of the other characters he has played, but there’s no hint of a dead wife, or girlfriend, or kid — no hint he’s carrying a dark secret. In this flick, Cage is just an asshole.

The film opens with Cage bagging a white jaguar in a South American jungle. It’s the biggest get of his life. Selling it to the highest bidder means retirement.

Walsh has had a busy trip into the jungle, in fact. Besides the jaguar, he nabs some parrots, monkeys, snakes, and I think I even spotted a small bear at one point. Walsh has to get all these animals to Mexico, so he books passage aboard a tramp ship under the command of Captain Morales (Braulio Castillo hijo).

That’s bad luck for him, as the UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT has also booked the ship as transport for a dangerous ex-operative named Richard Loffler (Kevin Durand). Loffler used to be an assassin for the good old USA, but he went rogue and has been killing for the commies. After a manhunt that we don’t get to see in this movie, Loffler was captured, and is now being extradited back to the States. He’s being escorted by a team of black ops toughs led by Ringer (LaMonica Garrett); a federal prosecutor, Paul Freed (Michael Imperioli); and a Navy neurologist, Dr. Ellen Taylor (Famke Janssen).

Why are they not just flying Loffler back to the US, and why does he need a neurologist? Those two questions are tied together. Powell and company put a little thought into getting their bad guy onto the ship, as it turns out. Loffler has a medical condition where Primalsudden changes in atmospheric pressure can lead to seizures, preventing him ever getting on a plane. Dr. Taylor is there to monitor his condition, because we all know the United States is concerned with the health and welfare of those it detains. It’s a more believable premise than most shitty action flicks.

Of course, Loffler manages to escape after the ship sets out to sea, and it’s up to the small cast to recapture Loffler before he kills everyone aboard. Some timely deaths among the black ops team means that responsibility falls to Nicolas Cage. And if that weren’t enough, the white jaguar isn’t just shitty CGI window dressing. Loffler lets Walsh’s animals loose, so the protagonists are just as much at risk from them as from Loffler. Even the monkeys get in on it, notching the first animal kill of the flick.

Everything else about the plot will be familiar to anyone who has seen more than two or three shitty action flicks. There’s a good guy and a bad guy, and they settle things in the final act. It’s not that important how it’s done or what’s said, only that it’s not dull.

And it isn’t. Powell moved things along in his film quite nicely. That’s about all that went right. This is a very cheap-looking film. As hinted at above, the CGI stinks. Also, the vast majority of the movie takes place aboard the ship used for filming, and there’s hardly any characters beyond those I’ve already named and the small ship’s crew. Yet even some of those characters are superfluous.

Famke Janssen’s character is barely needed other than to justify the bad guy getting on a boat. For the rest of the film she just kind of wanders around and delivers bad reads. She doesn’t look thrilled to be in the film at all. Contrast that with Cage’s never-ending enthusiasm.

The two share a couple of scenes here and there where they go into each other’s backstories. These would be the most painful moments in the film, due to the combination of weak dialogue, uninteresting origins, lack of bullets being fired, and Janssen’s general disdain for her role, but Cage always managed to liven things up. In one of these scenes, he channels his own Oscar-winning performance from Leaving Las Vegas, playing Walsh as stumbling drunk and barely coherent. I would pay real money to see the rest of the takes of this scene.

Durand tries his best to live up to Cage’s relentlessness, but he comes off as merely clownish. Cage, on the other hand, has perfected the art of shitty scene-chewing. Were Walsh a real man, he would be a menace. Since this is just a movie, however, we viewers can appreciate Frank Walsh as yet another instance of transcendence from a truly sublime shitty movie actor. Because there ain’t nothing else going on here.

Nicolas Cage is now saving shitty movies in the same way as, once upon a time, did William Shatner. He singlehandedly rips this movie from the cold, dead fingers of Famke Janssen and makes it watchable. Because of that, Primal makes it into the top 60 of the Watchability Index, taking over the #59 spot from Frogs.

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