Primal is like Life of Pi meets The Silence of the Lambs, only way less fun than that sounds. Here's another example of how far Nicolas Cage's career has fallen. Once an Oscar winner, he's done little in the last few years except make low-budget schlock, where he often gives broad, pointlessly over-the-top performances. It's cool in some circles to take pleasure in his cinematic insanity, but I find it depressing to see a good actor do poor work. This may not be the worst picture he's ever made, although it's certainly down there.

Cage plays big game hunter Frank Walsh. In the opening scene, he captures a rare white jaguar that he plans to sell to whichever zoo offers him the most money. To get it home, he hops a ride on a cargo ship. Also on board is Richard Loffler (Kevin Durand), a serial killer so dangerous he needs to be restrained and caged. The hows and whys are too boring to get into, but once out at sea, Loffler gets loose and so does the jaguar. It's up to Frank to bring them both under control.

Wacky stories like this can work. Look at Crawl, in which two people are stranded in a house with alligators during a Category 5 hurricane. Totally absurd and implausible. It works, though, because it's tautly directed and exploits the concept to the fullest degree possible. In comparison, Primal is sluggishly directed by Nick Powell, who doesn't seem to know how to milk suspense from a serial killer and a wild animal wreaking bloody havoc in a confined space. It takes forever for this movie to get going, and the scenes that should be goofball fun fall flat. Instead of indulging in their absurdity, the film rushes through them. Unconvincing CGI used to create the jaguar doesn't help matters any.

Then there's Cage, who mostly sleepwalks through Primal. He's done so many of these “gonzo” performances that he seems bored by the prospect of doing one yet again. The spark of manic energy that has always been his stock in trade is dimmer this time around. He can phone this sort of thing in by now, and he virtually does.

I don't think it's unreasonable to expect a picture with a premise this kooky to deliver B-movie fun. We want many scenes of the jaguar – or Frank's snakes and monkeys – attacking people. Those moments are few and far between. Too much time is spent on the Hannibal Lecter-lite serial killer angle. Nothing in that part of the plot is fresh or original. Or exciting, for that matter. The stuff audiences ostensibly come to a movie like this to see are largely withheld, save for intermittent small, unsatisfying doses.

If you guessed that Primal has the requisite lone female character who is completely wasted, you're correct. In this case, it's Famke Janssen as a doctor assigned to monitor Loffler's health. That's just one more fumble in a movie that possesses a great idea that it doesn't have the faintest clue what to do with.

out of four

Primal is rated R for violence and language. The running time is 1 hour and 37 minutes.