Nicolas Cage has found himself starring in a series of low-budget films in recent years that few people have seen. That would include such unforgettable efforts as “A Score to Settle,” “Color Out of Space,” “Running with the Devil” and “Kill Chain.” One thing working against such titles is that there is stigma around low-budget productions in terms of expected quality. But even a movie with a lot of bucks to spend – such as Cage’s “Face/Off” – can be lacking in quality.

Sometimes a low-budget film can be better than expected, as is the case with Cage’s latest effort, “Primal.” This film from director Nick Powell doesn’t come close to past Cage films like “Rumble Fish” or “Leaving Las Vegas,” but it has just enough action and adventure to entertain.

Cage plays Frank Walsh, a hunter and collector of rare and exotic animals who is far more comfortable around animals than he is around people. There are times when he must leave the jungle to make human contact, and that happens when Walsh captures a rare white jaguar. If he can transport the creature back to the United States, he can make a fortune. The problem is that the captain of the ship he has booked also has agreed to transport a well-trained assassin, Richard Loffler (Kevin Durand).

The seas get choppy and deadly when both predators escape their cages. It is up to Walsh to track down the pair before the entire crew is killed.

One of the reasons “Primal” is entertaining is that Cage has found his most interesting character to play since his “National Treasure” days. Walsh is on the edge between being a well-qualified hunter and a washed up deadbeat. He tries to show a tough side, but his kind heart often gets in the way.

It was also smart that Cage doesn’t try to play Walsh as if he were a 20-year-old adventurer. He moves a little slowly, and the fight scenes aren’t ballets of fists and feet but more from the gut. Cage portrays Walsh as a man who, like many animals, finds power only when backed into a corner.

The casting of Durand as the nemesis is another plus for the film. The actor comes across as an evil force of nature both when he speaks and when he fights. Durand plays the role the way all good actors take on villains — to look as if he is having a good time being bad.

The biggest miscue in “Primal” comes from the casting of Famke Janssen as a member of the military who has been assigned to accompany the prisoner. The by-the-book way she plays the role suggests that her character may have some major secrets, but sadly her performance is wooden. Janssen’s capable of far better work; this effort comes across as someone just trying to get through the day and get to the bank to cash the check.

Richard Leder’s script uses the two men to get across the main theme of exactly who are the most dangerous predators on the planet. The debate goes back and forth with each attack. The clash of these two men is amplified because the action takes place in the claustrophobic confines of ship. It has the same kind of feel that “Alien” got across so well in that there is just no place to run and hide.

Add better-than-average special effects — especially in bringing the white jaguar to the screen – and “Primal” rises above the standard low-budget production.

There will be no awards or huge leveling of accolades on “Primal.” But, comparing it to much of Cage’s recent work, the film ends up being a very welcome surprise in that there’s enough solid acting, special effects and tension to up the entertainment volume.

“Primal” opens in theaters and will be available through On Demand starting Nov. 8.

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“PRIMAL”

2½ stars

Cast: Nicolas Cage, Famke Janssen, Kevin Durand, LaMonica Garrett, Michael Imperioli

Directed by Nick Powell

Rated R for language, peril, violence

Running time: 97 minutes.

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Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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