Primal

“Primal” begins the way that every movie should begin: With a bearded Nicolas Cage sitting in a tree somewhere deep in the Brazilian jungle while smoking a cigar, reading “Real Estate” magazine, and waiting for a rare white jaguar known as “El Fantasma Gato” (“The Ghost Cat”) to emerge from the trees and eat the goat carcass that’s strung up on the ground below. Sadly — if inevitably — this schlocky genre mishmash is all downhill from there, as not even a fun premise and a talking parrot sidekick can save the movie from its low budget, general lethargy, and abject lack of craft.

The best thing that “Primal” has going for it (beyond its truly incredible poster) is a premise that harkens back to the glory days of dopey ’90s action films — a beautiful time when B-movie directors were high out of their minds on the promise of CGI, and used such digital tools to add new dimensions to otherwise staid ideas. Stephen Sommers’ “Deep Rising” is perhaps the most divine example: Just when you think you’re watching a routine Treat Williams vehicle about a team of mercenaries who have to shoot their way out of a luxury cruise ship, a giant sea monster shows up to eat half the cast and put everyone on their heels.

“Primal” has a similar trick up its sleeve, but Richard Leder’s script is too threadbare to conjure any of the same magic, and director Nick Powell — a longtime stunt coordinator stepping behind the camera for the first time — finds a way to sap the suspense out of every scene. Also, the CG is somehow even less convincing than it was 21 years ago, but at least there’s a lot more of it. Cage exudes a palpable “Bogart on benzedrine” vibe as prickly loner Frank Walsh, a former zoo worker who became a freelance game hunter after being fired from eight jobs in 10 years. Say what you will about zoos, but that’s still a mighty tumble down the moral ladder, and it’s left Frank with a deep self-loathing that he’s been trying to drink away ever since.

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