Frank Walsh (Nicolas Cage) is an animal smuggler taking his illegal cargo – including a rare and valuable white jaguar – to Puerto Rico.
Richard Loffler (Kevin Durand) is a dangerous criminal being taken back to the US to stand trial for murder and crimes against humanity.
Loffler is prone to air pressure-related seizures, which gets round the fact that taking him from South America to the US by plane would’ve been much quicker – plus we’ve already had snakes loose on one of those, so maybe it’s time for Cats on a Cargo Ship, or indeed Felines on a Freighter.
Their stalking ground is a slow-moving container ship, where Walsh has to face being the prey instead of the predator – not just of Loffler, escaped from his cage, but of the dangerous animals he’s captured to sell to the highest bidder.
Primal is no masterpiece, though I warmed to it as it neared its close, and not just because it was nearly at a close. It’s enjoyable nonsense that becomes weirdly compulsive viewing.
Frank is deeply unpleasant – Naval lieutenant Dr Ellen Taylor (Famke Janssen) tells him he’s “arrogant, disrespectful, dishonest” – and he never misses an opportunity to berate and insult those against him and (sort of) on his side.
During his latest jungle stint, sitting on a wooden platform in the trees, he spies the clearly CGI’d jaguar, and the two have a brief face-off after it leaps up onto his platform.
Once it’s been tranquillised Walsh has no qualms about removing the big cat from its home, even though its myth-like status means his local contact refuses to have anything to do with it when Walsh needs to transport his hoard of stolen animals to the docks.
He’s sharing the container ship journey with Dr Taylor; several US marshals, including John Ringer (LaMonica Garrett), whom Frank seems to hate even more than Loffler; and Loffler himself, a for-hire assassin and ex-Forces operative who has been selling his skills to terrorist groups in South America, and is now deemed dangerous enough to be chained to a chair in a cage for the voyage.
Loffler looks to be modelled on Hannibal Lecter, and Durand throws himself into the role with more enthusiasm than finesse – it’s fun watching his raised-eye evil grins, but like Frank’s rapidly collapsing moneymaking plans, it’s a case of overpromising and underdelivering.
The problem is that there isn’t really anything that sets Loffler apart from your average unpleasant high-level mercenary. He’s vicious and not averse to killing as many people as he needs to, but he lacks the psychopathic delight, narcissism and brilliance of a Lecter. I’m not asking for nastier deaths, it’s just that despite bumping off a lot of people he comes across as a bit of a damp squib.
Walsh is anything but a damp squib; rather he’s a wayward firework exploding at everyone even when they’re meant to be working together.
His priorities are always the survival of himself, his parrot and the big cat, which alone could be worth $1 million to him.
Loffler, once he’s escaped from his own cage, frees Walsh’s venomous cargo, and between the animals and the assassin, people start dying.
The container ship is huge and slow-moving, but there is a sense of menacing claustrophobia. And that exhausting mix of hemmed-in gloom and artificial light works well.
It’s much scarier when they’re in the industrial engine rooms and storage in the bowels of the ship, rather than out on deck, even if the threat level is higher outside.
But you can’t have too many people lining up to die as it gets boring; it’s much better if you have a small cohort of people initially at odds who slowly start to work together, and perhaps even fancy each other.
One group of crew members escapes in a lifeboat, leaving Ellen, Frank, Scotty the world’s snippiest engineer, young Rafael (Jeremy Nazario), his injured dad and a couple of others to battle Loffler and the jaguar.
We occasionally see the world in a blurry grey tones from the cat’s eyes, and there’s a minor attempt to have Frank highlight the immorality of the American government and its connivance with men like Loffler.
It would have been interesting if they’d followed the cat’s-eye view more consistently.
But mostly Primal doesn’t concern itself with anything more than the killer criminal, the killer cat and their prey, in what amounts to a reasonably tense thriller held together by Frank’s tantrums, and genre tropes: from the set up, to the game of “cat, big cat and mouse” around one enclosed place, from possible traitors to Frank’s grubby white top.
It picks up massively in the last 25 minutes or so, with kidnappings and people tied to pipes. Having a woman and a child on board is exploited for maximum effect.
Janssen and Cage are good together, though her character gets stuck down that lone woman and child cul-de-sac. Still, she’s a reassuring presence; while Cage’s splendid histrionics make it a wonder Walsh wasn’t spotted and killed by Loffler in the first few minutes.
Lionsgate UK Presents Nicolas Cage in the action-packed thriller PRIMAL on Digital Download 10 February and DVD 17 February
Watch the Primal trailer now: