Idris Elba battles a vengeful big cat in the South African wilderness in this predictable, sometimes illogical, but still taut, menacing and effective thriller.
August 25, 2022
Idris Elba fights a lion. That's it, that's Beast, as far as film pitches go at least. This South Africa-set thriller's one-sentence summary is up there with 'Jason Statham battles a giant shark' and 'Liam Neeson stares down wolves' — straightforward and irresistible, obviously, in enticing audiences into cinemas. That said, the latest addition to the animals-attack genre isn't as ridiculous as The Meg, and isn't a resonant existential musing like The Grey. What this creature feature wants to be, and is, is a lean, edge-of-your-seat, humanity-versus-nature nerve-shredder. Director Baltasar Kormákur (Adrift) knows that a famous face, a relentless critter as a foe, and life-or-death terror aplenty can be the stuff that cinema dreams and hits are made of. His movie isn't completely the former, but it does do exactly what it promises. If it proves a box office success, it'll be because it dangles an easy drawcard and delivers it.
There is slightly more to Beast than Idris Elba brawling with the king of the jungle, of course — or running from it, trying to hide from it in a jeep, attempting to outsmart it and praying it'll tire of seeing him as prey. But this tussle with an apex predator is firmly at its best when it really is that simple, that primal and, with no qualms about gore and jump scares, that visceral. Elba (The Harder They Fall) plays recently widowed American doctor Nate Samuels, who is meant to be relaxing, reconnecting with his teenage daughters Mare (Iyana Halley, Licorice Pizza) and Norah (Leah Jeffries, Rel), and finding solace in a pilgrimage to his wife's homeland. But Beast wouldn't be called Beast if the Samuels crew's time with old family friend Martin (Sharlto Copley, Russian Doll), a wildlife biologist who oversees the nature reserve, was all placid safaris and sunsets.
Kormákur doesn't even pretend that bliss is an option, or that the stalking, scares and big man/big cat showdown aren't coming. Ramping up the tension from the outset, his feature begins with the reason that its main maned (and unnamed) creature wants to slash his way through Nate and company: poachers hunting, with the culprits sneaking in at night to elude human eyes and snuff the light out of every feline in a targeted pride, which leaves one particularly large animal, the patriarch, angry and vengeful. Arriving unknowingly in the aftermath, the Samuels family have just chosen the wrong time to visit. Their first encounter with another pride, which Martin helped raise, leaves them awestruck instead of frightened; then they spy Beast's killer beast's handiwork at a nearby village, and surviving becomes their only aim.
Swap out Elba from the 'Idris Elba fights a lion' equation and Kormákur would've had a far lesser film on his hands. His premise, wonderfully concise as it is, wouldn't work with any old actor. His entire movie wouldn't, and Beast works on the level it's prowling on — mostly. Screenwriter Ryan Engle (Rampage), using a story by Jaime Primak Sullivan (Breaking In), gives Nate grief and guilt over his past mistakes to grapple with as well as that persistent lion. Yes, the script is that cliched, because action heroes almost always seem to be wooing, worrying about or mourning a woman while they're endeavouring to save something, be it the world, their families or themselves. Elba dances the bereaved absent father dance well, though, with the Beast's depths springing from him rather than the material and its deceased spouse/regretful dad/seize-the-day tropes.
Whether coming to widespread fame in one of the best TV dramas ever made, cancelling the apocalypse in a different on-screen altercation with critters, or playing a complicated detective, the man with The Wire, Pacific Rim and Luther on his resume (but not yet Bond) excels at playing people juggling problems and worries beyond their immediate threats. As sure as any feline, big, small, wild or domesticated, will swipe when it's being aggressive, that's what makes Elba brawling with Beast's revenge-seeking big cat such an appealing idea. The other troubles his character weathers here are both formulaic and thinly written, as they were always likely to be in a 93-minute lion attack flick — but, reliably as ever, Elba imparts Nate with the unflinching sense that this bout of king-of-the-jungle chaos is just one of many burdens he's had to face.
Elba would've brought that complexity to his part even if Beast didn't saddle Nate with an obligatory dead wife, and often that trauma feels like every other animal in the feature — merely there because the film needs to be about more than Elba feuding with a lion. Nate's thorny relationship with his daughters could've still prickled, then softened and resolidified in the throes of panic, anyway; indeed, both Halley and Jeffries are at their finest when Mare and Norah have to be resourceful, brave and in the moment amid such ever-lurking danger. Kormákur makes that peril palpable, too. With cinematographer Philippe Rousselot (an Oscar-winner three decades ago for A River Runs Through It), he keeps the camera moving and roving amid eye-catching surroundings, letting the beauty of the place linger but rarely allowing a minute's peace in lengthy, unbroken shots. The Samuels' new nemesis is fast, savage and erratic, after all — even if lions are majestic creatures — and also willing to lay in wait, and the director of disaster movies Adrift and Everest wants his viewers to feel all of the above.
Perhaps it's apt that when Beast struggles, it's because it's doing more than it needs to, but also with not enough effort — over-plotting Nate, Mare, Norah and Martin's backstories, and yet keeping them so well-worn. The pixels behind the film's animal antagonist also suffer a touch of the same fate; in trying to truly terrify, this CGI cat looks photorealistic as the live-action The Lion King's creatures did, but also preternatural. Nonetheless, the narrative's inherent silliness and illogical leaps aside, too — yes, including Elba punching the movie's bloodthirsty namesake — Beast remains as ruthlessly proficient as a lion at drawing, demanding and grabbing attention. Add it to the menagerie alongside alligator flick Crawl, another wholly predictable, sparse, taut, menacing and effective effort that's never Jaws but never Sharknado. It also isn't 1981's Roar, the wildest lion picture that'll ever exist and one plagued by animal attacks off-screen as well, but nothing else is.
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