I’m currently wracking my brain to come up with a genre that Idris Elba hasn’t yet imposed his iron will upon and I’m struggling to think of an answer; after all, Hackney’s most hard working actor has essentially done it all at this point with gangsters, supervillains, Norse gods, genies, video game characters and Nelson Mandela all scattered across his filmography like some deranged bingo card, but with Beast he manages to tick off an especially random one.
That’s right, following in the footsteps of Blake Lively and Jason Statham, our Idris has flung his hat into the ring of the Killer Animal movie, but instead of matching his star power against an shark or an especially hungry crocodile, Elba is squaring up to the king of the jungle itself when he and his dysfunctional family are stranded after their safari goes wrong and a rogue lion decides to go all Jaws: The Revenge on them. Can our Hollywood jack of all trades match wits with a ferocious cat in what’s essentially Jaws with paws?
Trying to piece his family back together after his wife succumbed to cancer after they separated, doctor Nate Daniels attempts to re-bond with his two teenage daughters with a trip to South Africa to visit his old stomping grounds and show them the village where their mother grew up. Meeting up with Martin Battles, Nate’s old friend who is a manager of the Mopani Reserve, they head out to gawp at giraffes and elephants from the safety of a jeep, but its apparent from the girl’s fluctuating moods that both eldest daughter Meredith and younger Norah still have some raw issues to work through when it comes to some residual anger toward their father, but it all has to be put on the back burner when one of Africa’s deadliest residents decides to bare its teeth and pop its claws.
You see, on an unstoppable rampage is a large, kill-crazy, male lion who has taken upon himself to kill anything it comes across due to the murder of its pride by poachers and after clearing out an entire village single handedly (or pawedly, I guess), it sets its uncompromising hunger for vengence on the Daniels family.
The first attack from the pissed off pussy sees the jeep hanging off a cliff and Martin viciously wounded and dragged off as bait and so Nate has to attempt to succeed at ticking off a number of things if he or his daughters have any hope of making it back to civilisation alive. Dwindling supplies, tending to wounds and a new form of transport is a given, but even with a high powered tranquilizer rifle tucked into the crook of his arm, how on earth is city boy Nate supposed to fend off the iron will of a creature that could pop a skull in its jaws like a melon between the thighs of a bodybuilder showing off on Instagram?
As mean and lean as its ferocious, maned antagonist, Beast barely clocks in at a brief 93 minutes, but when your movie is essentially a taunt, survival picture where an everyman is forced to grapple with the gaping jaws of nature, shorter usually tends to be sweeter – and sweet Beast most certainly is, as it ends up bring a no muss, no fuss example of the animal amok genre that makes the most of its stripped-back premise.
Director Baltasar Kormákur, familiar both with sweaty action (Two Guns) and gruelling, man vs. nature escapades (Everest) brings a steady hand to a movie that could have easily felt either hokey or overly familiar and he creates some impressively tangible – almost chewable – tension thanks to the trick of his use of long edits that give you a palpable scene of movement and energy. The camera follows the action like the opening shot of Haploween, be it Nate wandering through a deserted village or the lion struggling to snare our lead as he huddled beneath a car, it creates very thrilling sense of realism as it wisely establishes the geography in subliminal shorthand.
Idris is in his element here by – well, not being in his element as he curbs his more overt action credentials in favour of playing up his more vunerable and relatable side while straining to reforge a connection with both his daughters and Africa. It’s a savvy move as hurling Elba’s action movie persona into the mix may have been enjoyably trashy (the man has fought Kaijus and a tag team of Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham, remember), but Beast plays things admirably straight, opting for a white knuckle seige mentality rather than gung-ho lion punching – although Idris does awesomely get to lay a haymaker or two during the frenzied finale. Taking the same route as other, such vaguely plausible killer beastie flicks as Rogue and The Shallows, the script wisely bestows the lunatic lion with just enough creepy intelligence to give Sharlto Copley’s benevolent biologist nervous pause to utter the usual “this isn’t normal behavior” spiel that movies like this thrive on.
However, as good as the direction and performances are, they aren’t going to mean a hell of a lot if the lion itself doesn’t convince (god knows that this sub-genre has seen more than it’s fair share of poorly CGI’ed carnivores and rubbery apex predators) and thankfully, Beast’s frenzied feline is realistic enough to feel like someone has shot Simba from the live-action The Lion King reboot full of PCP and let the shaggy, CGI bastard tear through the cast like a particularly virulent laxative.
With all that being said, there are a number of gripes that mar matters slightly and one is oddly that I wished the film would veer a bit more into the realms of blatant outrageousness when it comes to the kills, with most of the victims simply being tackled violently out of frame – although Elba’s scraps with the lion are comparable to the spectacular bear mauling from The Revanant. Elsewhere, some of the dialogue suffers from being a bit too expository for the slower members of the audience with characters constantly reminding each other to watch out for the lion (as if you could fucking forget it) and at times both of Nate’s daughters flirt dangerously with being as irritating as kids from a Jurassic Park sequel, these are all instantly forgivable once the movie hits its nail biting stride.
A compact, effective thriller, Beast may suffer in comparison to this year’s other nature obsessed kill-a-thon, Prey, but like that movie it uses its slight premise and reliance on incident to maximum effect while taking care to portray its prey as much, much more than merely walking, talking slabs of potential vulture chow. Believe me, if I’m telling the truth then how can be Lion?