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‘Primal’ Adds to the Crazy Cage Canon

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The release of an obscure new Nicolas Cage movie with a ridiculous premise — one bound to be discussed on multiple movie podcasts in the coming years — has become a semi-annual event. Primal, even by those standards, is one of the crazier ones. It’s one of those movies that isn’t all that good on its face, but sheer audacity makes it more enjoyable than it otherwise would have been. 

Primal — not to be confused with the new Genndy Tartakovsky animated TV series of the same name — is an uncommonly breezy movie; clocking in at just 97 minutes, it could best be described as like Under Siege meets Con Air, only with exotic animals. 

Primal Nicolas Cage

The script by TV movie journeyman Richard Leder (per its IMDB trivia page) was originally written under the much better title Persona Non Grata, and was first optioned in the 1990s. That makes sense; Primal very much has the feel of a mid-90s, high-concept action film that comes across like it’s straight from the era of Con Air and Executive Decision.

Directed by Nick Powell, Primal stars Cage as someone with a profession I wasn’t aware existed: He roams the jungle and finds exotic animals, which he then sells to zoos for big bucks. After capturing a rare white jaguar and some other animals that include snakes and monkeys, and he hitches a ride back to the mainland on a cargo ship that’s passengers also include a notorious, imprisoned political assassin (Kevin Durand). 

This leads to, needless to say, the assassin and the animals being freed, and a subsequent free-for-all of violence in which the guns are at times no match for the beasts. The prisoner, meanwhile, was being guarded by U.S. Marshals, which — in the tradition of Con Air — puts Nicolas Cage and marshals in an uneasy alliance against a murderous baddie, with Durand even shackled much the same way Steve Buscemi’s serial killer was.

Primal isn’t really a good movie, but it is an occasionally fun one. It doesn’t feature Cage at his wide-eyed, insane, Nic-Cage-losing-his-shit best, but some of his line readings are worthy of guffaws. As for the action sequences, they lean more towards hand-to-hand fights than to Bruckheimer-esque explosions. Durand (from Lost and Fruitvale Station), meanwhile, is a counterintuitive casting choice that isn’t quite successful, while the rest of the cast includes Famke Janssen and the noticeably aged Michael Imperioli from The Sopranos. 

Cage’s career has taken a strange direction. He was in eight films in 2018, is in six in 2019, and five in 2020. The conventional wisdom is that Cage says yes to everything because he needs the money, and there may be some truth to that, but the actor is still capable of interesting work. 

2018’s Mandy is seen by many as a Cage classic, and he did an outstanding job voicing “Spider-man Noir” in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse, as well as narrating the letters of Anton Yelchin in one of 2019’s best documentaries, Love, Antosha. And in Oliver Stone’s otherwise forgettable Snowden, Cage played the part of a down-on-his-luck CIA bureaucrat, showing that he could have a future as a character actor in larger ensembles. 

Primal won’t go down as a highlight of the lead actor’s filmography, but its premise is just silly enough to make itself worthwhile. That said, Primal is one of those films that might have been more entertaining had it been even more ridiculous.

Stephen Silver is a journalist and film critic based in the Philadelphia area. He is the co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle and a Rotten Tomatoes-listed critic since 2008, and his work has appeared in New York Press, Philly Voice, The Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Tablet, The Times of Israel, and RogerEbert.com. In 2009, he became the first American journalist to interview both a sitting FCC chairman and a sitting host of "Jeopardy" on the same day.

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