Set almost entirely on a cargo ship, Primal is yet another recent low-budget Nic Cage action vehicle in which you can practically see him working out which financial obligations his paycheck will partially cover. As written—by one Richard Leder, who’s spent the past two decades almost exclusively penning TV-movies with titles like Christmas On Chestnut Street and Our Son, The Matchmaker—the film amounts to a noisy cross between Under Siege (with just one mercenary on the loose) and Snakes On A Plane (on a boat), minus the excitement of the former or the deliberate cheesiness of the latter. One hires Cage for a generic timewaster like this in the hope that he’ll make it at least a little more interesting on screen than it was on paper, by virtue of some crazed facial expressions and off-the-wall line readings, but he evidently wasn’t in the experimenting mood. Maybe he realized that there was little point in trying to compete with his menagerie of costars, including the aforementioned poisonous snakes, an annoying parrot, several hyperactive and apparently flesh-ripping monkeys, and a (very badly) computer-generated albino jaguar.
It’s the “white jag,” potentially worth a small fortune, that brings rare-animal hunter Frank Walsh (Cage) to the Brazilian rainforest (played here by Puerto Rico), where he’s first seen watching for his prey in a treetop while smoking a cigar and reading a real-estate brochure. That’s about as witty as Primal ever gets. Having successfully captured the beast, as well as various other exotic animals, Frank proceeds to smuggle them out on a friend’s freighter, which also happens to be transporting—in a big, Hannibal Lecter-style cage of his own—the mercenary-for-hire Richard Loffler (Kevin Durand), who’s been arrested for murder as well as a bunch of unspecified “crimes against humanity.” Loffler promptly gets free by faking a seizure, and creates a distraction by releasing all of Frank’s critters, the jaguar included. This doesn’t exactly make sense, since Loffler is no less vulnerable to being bitten, mauled, or, uh, flesh-ripped than anyone else on board, but it does allow director Nick Powell (a longtime stunt coordinator who previously directed Cage in another schlockfest, Outcast) to toss an animal onscreen whenever the gunfire gets too tedious.
Durand arguably gives a more Cage-like performance than does Cage here, making Loffler one of those highly self-conscious villains who seems to be auditioning to play Richard III at all times. He gets to taunt his captors even while still manacled, whereas Cage is stuck with such deathless sarcasm as “See you on the main deck, we can buddy up for the shuffleboard tournament.” (Shuffleboard jokes then become a go-to source of ostensible humor throughout.) A token effort is made to give Frank some sort of moral arc, as he slowly becomes more determined to protect his fellow passengers—particularly a Naval doctor played by Famke Janssen, with whom he engages in some rote flirtation—than to ensure the safety of his valuable animals. For the most part, though, Primal just goes through the motions of jeopardy in close quarters, dispatching minor characters one by one en route to a big knife fight (surprisingly blah, given that this is what Powell usually does for a living) and the obligatory climactic death-by-white-jaguar. It’s the sort of humdrum thriller you half-watch on TV while folding laundry; any hope that Cage might do something memorable enough to momentarily pull your attention entirely away from your socks is in vain.