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In Primal, available on VOD in Canada this week, Nicolas Cage plays a big-game hunter for zoos.

Laura T Magruder/Courtesy of VVS

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In the first few minutes of the new film Primal, Nicolas Cage is introduced sitting high up in the bushes of what a title card informs us is “Rainforest, Brazil.” Drenched in sweat, wearing clothing that looks like it was pulled from the dumpster behind an off-brand Tilly Endurables factory outlet, and smoking a cigar the size of a baby’s arm, the actor is in peak late-career Nic Cage Mode: wily, desperate, a bit feral.

Playing an irascible big-game hunter hoping to snag his biggest prey yet – an impressive-sounding “ghost cat,” which is really just a white jaguar that’s been CGI’d to death – Cage is unpredictable in his line readings, generous in his facial tics and more than a little sad in every other way. As Primal unfolds – with Cage’s hunter caught up in a scenario that can only be described as Noah’s Ark meets the Ray Liotta thriller Turbulence, but way way way way less interesting than that sounds – it becomes increasingly clear that the performer is giving director Nick Powell’s film far more effort than is necessary. Because Nic Cage doesn’t know how to do anything less than be 110-per-cent Nic Cage.

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Which is why the actor remains today's most fascinating, maddening actor. The man clearly knows how to create engaging, lingering, sticky performances. Yet for myriad reasons – poor career advice, bad investments, an IRS bill as intimidating as one of his prized dinosaur skulls – Cage has been forced to confine his talents to the trashiest layer of the direct-to-video market's garbage bin.

In Mandy, Nicholas Cage plays a lumberjack who stops at nothing to get his abducted girlfriend back.

Courtesy of Elevation Pictures

Like fellow onetime Hollywood kings Bruce Willis, John Travolta and Sylvester Stallone, you know that when a new film arrives boasting Cage’s name and a too-vague title like Rage, A Score to Settle, Arsenal or Kill Chain, things are going to get messy. Sloppy action, distressingly low production values and scripts that you or I could conjure, given half an afternoon and a generous amount of Dexedrine.

But even when a Nic Cage movie is bad – and make no mistake, Primal, which is available on VOD in Canada this week, is very bad – it is always interesting. While Willis, Travolta and Stallone are putting in as much effort as you or I might in cashing a cheque for embarrassing services rendered, Cage is consistently, intently working. No matter how flat the character or how predictable the proceedings, the actor throws himself deep into the muck of the role, emerging with something that is as engaging as it is head-scratching. His eyes pierce and his body tightens on cue, as if he is willing something into existence that probably shouldn’t be. He radiates a nervy, demanding energy that has no precedent, even if it has already produced so many imitators. He is singular.

But Nicolas Cage is also caught in a paradox of his own making. The man enlivens every movie he stars in, but so few of his films match his sincere, manic commitment. He has fallen out of favour with the Hollywood that once embraced him with unlimited-resource spectacle (The Rock, Face/Off, Con Air), and those who will deign to employ him today frankly aren’t fit to lick his snake-leather jacket.

Occasionally, there is a moment of contemporary Cage/industry sympatico. Panos Cosmatos’ 2018 midnight-madness freak-out Mandy and Richard Stanley’s H.G. Lovecraft adaptation Color Out of Space from last year both got the best from Cage, all while matching his gonzo dedication. The same goes for a handful of recent animated features (Teen Titans Go! To the Movies, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse), which played to exactly Cage’s freak-out wavelength.

Joely Richardson and Nicholas Cage in Color Out of Space.

Courtesy of VVS

Yet these films, while greatly entertaining, also spring from a place of appreciation and homage – they are explicitly built to untangle the tao of Nicolas Cage, rather than giving the actor some sort of escape valve. They wouldn't exist without Cage, nor should they. But the actor's best films – where performance and filmmaker vision coalesce – are the movies that you would have never imagined the actor could, or should, star in.

The last great example of this might be Spike Jonze’s Adaptation, from almost two decades ago. Here, Cage was given the opportunity to tap into something that didn’t merely play off his odd-man-out persona – it provided a base for something richer, deeper and trickier. Charlie Kaufman’s screenplay here is a meaty one for any serious scenery chewer – it’s about identical twins psychoanalyzing their own success, after all – but rewatching the film, it is astounding just how much Cage disappears into the role(s), emerging not as the Nicolas Cage we all know and meme-ify, but someone else entirely.

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I doubt that the actor will get the opportunity to take on a project of such complexity and demands any time soon. Instead, we’ll have to settle for forthcoming projects with titles such as 10 Double Zero, Prisoners of the Ghostland and Jiu Jitsu. Godspeed, Nicolas Cage. I’ll still be watching.

Primal is available digitally on-demand starting July 28.

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