THE STORY – Recently widowed Dr. Nate Daniels and his two teenage daughters travel to a South African game reserve managed by Martin Battles, an old family friend and wildlife biologist. However, what begins as a journey of healing soon turns into a fearsome fight for survival when a lion, a survivor of bloodthirsty poachers, begins stalking them.
THE CAST – Idris Elba, Iyana Halley, Leah Sava Jeffries & Sharlto Copley
THE TEAM – Baltasar Kormákur (Director) & Ryan Engle (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 93 Minutes
By Dan Bayer
One of the threads of the 2022 film year has been big studios giving us Hollywood’s version of comfort food: Time-tested scenarios and well-worn stock characters brought to life by the world’s biggest movie stars, as only they can. Sandra Bullock and Channing Tatum spiced up the adventure comedy “The Lost City.” Nicolas Cage poked fun at his own persona in the action comedy “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent.” Jennifer Lopez and Owen Wilson were so wrong a pairing on the surface that they made the traditional rom-com “Marry Me” feel oh so very right. And now, here is Idris Elba, gruffly stalking his way through the African brush as only he can, duking it out with a CGI lion in the B-movie actioner “Beast.” Give everyone involved in making and marketing “Beast” credit: You come for Idris Elba punching a lion in the face; you get Idris Elba punching a lion in the face. Baltasar Kormákur’s (“Adrift“) film may be destined to be remembered as nothing other than “that movie where Idris Elba punches a lion in the face.” Still, it’s well-made enough that it deserves to be remembered as a flat-out good movie, the one that the late Summer doldrums of 2022 deserve.
The plot is boilerplate: A recently widowed doctor (Elba) is taking his daughters (Iyana Halley and Leah Jeffries) to visit the African village where their mom grew up, hoping to reconnect with them. They’re staying with his old friend Martin (Sharlto Copley), a wildlife preserve warden who takes them on a personal safari that is cut short by a run-in with a very angry lion who has already murdered a whole village after some poachers killed the rest of his Pride. Miles away from any other people and with no cell or radio service, will they be able to survive?
The characters in “Beast” are mere sketches, but the performers color them brightly enough to feel more substantial. Halley and Jeffries get the worst of it, saddled with characters written so annoyingly that it could be hard to sympathize with them. But their chemistry with each other and Elba is so palpable that it’s easy to paper over the subpar dialogue and invest in the characters anyway. Elba is a rock-solid anchor, creating a character that knows what he has to do even though he doesn’t always fully believe that he can do it. His performance is notable for how vulnerable it is and how badass it is – while he absolutely punches (and kicks and stabs) that lion in the face, he is also noticeably scared. That vulnerability makes the character feel all the more relatable and just may be the film’s secret weapon to keep the audience invested.
The film’s not-so-secret weapon is unquestionably cinematographer Philippe Rousselot. The Oscar winner has been livening up Hollywood boilerplate for decades, and he has elevated “Beast” considerably with his generous use of long takes. Right from the start, it’s clear we are in good hands as the camera glides around a group of poachers in the inky black night, allowing us to take everything in while adding an unmistakable aura of suspense. The camera often seems to mimic the antagonistic lion, patiently stalking its prey until it finds the right moment to pounce. It trains the audience to be constantly on edge, as the lion could appear anywhere, lurking around any corner. As Martin says in one of the script’s most perfectly groan-worthy lines, “we’re in his territory now,” and the you-are-there immediacy of those long takes emphasizes the feeling of unease that comes with being in a place where you know you don’t belong.
While Rousselot is the MVP of the filmmaking team, credit must be paid to Kormákur for how entertaining the film is. Push one element or another too hard, and a movie like this could become too goofy to be good, or conversely, too dour and fatalistic to be any fun. Kormákur walks the line perfectly, keeping everything in that perfect sweet spot of pulpy, b-movie action. “Beast” revels in the fact that it is a piece of entertainment but never talks down to its audience. Everyone knows what audiences come to a movie like this to see, and it goes about the business of giving them that with ruthless efficiency. Tightly edited, well-performed, and insightfully shot, “Beast” is the platonic ideal of a late Summer Hollywood blockbuster: Smart and stupid in amounts equal enough to give everyone a perfect 90-minute escape from the heat.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – A commanding performance from Idris Elba grounds this piece of good old-fashioned Hollywood hokum while the immersive long takes ramp up the suspense.
THE BAD – The screenplay is patently ridiculous, in ways equally bad as good.
THE OSCAR PROSPECTS – None
THE FINAL SCORE – 7/10