‘Beast’ Roars With Fun Suspense as Idris Elba Trades Punches With a Super Lion  

Some movies are truly made for watching in the summer. As the season winds down there’s no shame in beating the heat by going down to the local multiplex, buying a snack and sitting down to watch Idris Elba throw down with Africa’s meanest lion. “Beast” is a total exercise in absolute silliness, generating chuckles and genuine thrills in equal measure. The term “B-movie” gets used a lot these days because the studios keep churning them out. Yet this is a genuine throwback to drive-in creature features where not much of it can be believed, but it’s done with such energy that you go along for the ride. Could Elba really survive going toe to toe with the beast on screen? Just stop and wonder how that question compares to the usual superhero antics we already consume in vast quantities.

Dr. Nate Samuels (Elba) is visiting South Africa with daughters Mere (Iyana Halley) and Norah (Leah Jeffries) to show them the birthplace of their late mother, who recently passed away from illness. They meet up with Nate’s old college buddy, Martin (Sharlto Copley), a wildlife expert who also takes time to shoot at poachers targeting local lion prides. Nate hopes this trip can help his family reconnect, since he had been separating from his wife when she died. 18-year-old Mere harbors some resentment, augmented by how she wants to pursue photography as a career while Nate wishes she would go into medicine. Martin gives them a tour of the local reserve he watches over with tensely fun pit stops to look up close at a lion pride (the males even lick and hug Martin). Ah, but one of the females looks injured. Then to their horror, the group finds an entire village apparently slaughtered by a predator. Soon enough, the male lion roars out of the bush and attacks Nate, the girls and Martin. The beast will not stop since it is already enraged by his pride having been killed by poachers.

A movie like this should be judged on how well it pulls off the premise. From the moment Nate realizes a mad lion is rushing him from a close distance, director Baltasar Kormákur perfects the art of quickening your pulse through camera angles, sound design and efficient CGI. It’s hard to doubt we’re watching real lions on the screen, even if we are aware they are purely special effects. Kormákur borrows from Steven Spielberg and shows us just enough of the animal for good jump scares, while then keeping him as a constant, menacing specter following Nate and his daughters around the savannah. The screenplay by Ryan Engle provides enough of a solid backstory to give the premise some structure, yet the overall tone is in the tradition of creature features like “Anaconda” or “Congo.” The relationship between Nate, Mere and Norah is compelling enough because the actors generate some wonderful chemistry, but it’s really all about the lion clawing through an open window or jeeps tumbling down hillsides. Cinematographers Philippe Rousselot and Baltasar Breki Samper shoot the action in a more classic action style, avoiding too many wild moves. They create wrenching suspense with pans, tracking shots or holding wide angles that let us see the predator running at its target. 

If there are any messages in the movie they are standard action movie morals. Be a good parent. Protect your family. Try to understand your kids. We also get plenty of familiar survivalist self-treatment tips. When Martin gets mauled and sits injured with a sliced up leg, Nate instructs him over the radio in the ways of heating a blade to cauterize the wound. All of this is wildly entertaining because the movie simply never stops. The stalker lion is some kind of super feline who can set someone up as bait, withstand anesthetic darts and emerge unscathed from car wrecks. A whole squad of armed poachers can’t take this predator down and are deservedly devoured. He’s much more tactical than the two man eaters in that other famous killer lion thriller, “The Ghost and the Darkness.” The music by Steven Price is appropriately bombastic, throwing in some ear-splitting brass when required to give the lion extra kick when it prowls a hill, or paws at Elba from atop a jeep.

Idris Elba, who has been trying out every conceivable genre recently, brings an adequate amount of pathos to his character. He’s more moving as a father trying to prove himself than a movie like “Beast” requires. Yet because it’s such a good actor inhabiting this movie, it has an extra human touch that makes it more enjoyable as popcorn entertainment. The final brawl between action hero and super lion may be the hardest moment to believe, shot so well you put logic aside and cheer Elba on. In a summer that has been replete with space Vikings, Tom Cruise flying combat jets and scientists fighting off swarms of giant killer locusts, there’s plenty of room for an old-fashioned survivalist cage match between a charismatic star and a CGI beast designed to absurd perfection. You’re never bored and that’s the point.

Beast” releases Aug. 19 in theaters nationwide.