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Review: Idris Elba, meet lion. The new thriller 'Beast' doesn't beat around the bush

Justin Chang, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

Lions and poachers and snares, oh my! In the satisfyingly grisly survival thriller "Beast," Idris Elba plays a grieving widower who drags his two teenage daughters to a South African game reserve, embarking on an emotional journey that devolves into a nightmarish tussle with Mother Nature. Jean-Luc Godard famously said that all you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun; this one has two girls and several rifles, though one of them only fires none-too-effective tranquilizer darts. The movie's real weapon is a very large, very angry, skillfully computer-generated king of the jungle that turns out to have a major bone to pick (or crush) with the human race.

The animus is more than justified, given the ruinous state of the world in general and the ruthless poachers who've hunted these lions in particular. A few of those poachers come to a deservedly nasty end in the prologue, a tense nighttime set piece that establishes the human-versus-nature stakes and, no less important, a consistent, coherent visual scheme. Most of the mayhem in "Beast" is staged in lengthy, serpentine tracking shots that keep pace with the characters as they try to detect, evade and flee from a predator that might always be just a few lunges away. As his camera prowls the rugged terrain in precisely choreographed movements, director Baltasar Kormakur (working with cinematographer Philippe Rousselot) achieves a physical groundedness that makes even a digitally engineered predator seem palpably real.

That groundedness also anchors the predictably hokey if refreshingly straightforward narrative preliminaries laid out in Ryan Engle's screenplay (based on a story by Jaime Primak Sullivan). Nate Samuels (Elba) is a doctor, which you can bet is going to come in handy. He and his daughters — moody, photography-loving Mare (Iyana Halley) and spunky Norah (Leah Jeffries) — are visiting South Africa, the homeland of their recently deceased wife and mother. (The movie was shot on location in the country's Northern Cape province.) They're on a healing journey, or at least that's the idea; family friction keeps intruding, much of it rooted in Nate's specific failures as a husband and father.

Helping to relieve the mood is Nate's longtime friend Martin (the invaluable Sharlto Copley, from "District 9"). A combination game warden and wildlife whisperer, Martin is on hand to play safari guide and murmur ominous warnings about "the law of the jungle," even as he demonstrates firsthand how harmless and cuddly the local lion prides are. You can't blame them for the graphically mauled human corpses that suddenly turn up in a nearby village. That would be the handiwork of a much bigger, meaner lion that soon roars into the frame, trapping the group deep in the South African bush with only a stalled jeep for shelter. There's a peculiarly monstrous, almost mutant quality to this dark-maned beast, who looks a bit like Aslan of the Dead, or perhaps Scar from "The Lion King" after a cocktail of steroids and bath salts.

That sounds ridiculous, but it turns out to be just the right amount of ridiculous for this shrewd, stripped-down late-summer diversion. Kormakur has been working his way toward this B-movie sweet spot for a while. Over a career that's zigzagged between his native Iceland and Hollywood, he's become a reliable disaster artist, capsizing a boat in "The Deep," stranding two lovers at sea in "Adrift" and following mountain climbers on a snowy death march in "Everest." The human body in extremis is his comfort zone, and here, with pouncing paws, snapping jaws and discreetly blood-gushing wounds, he sustains — and, crucially, modulates — the threat of grievous bodily harm.

It helps that the central foursome, especially Halley and Jeffries, are as likable as they are, which helps mitigate and even sell the absurdity of those moments that will have you screaming "Stay in the car, you idiot!" and "Roll up the [your choice of expletive] window!" Elba, a reliably suave man of action, shrewdly downplays here as a bumbling dad who, brawny frame and medical expertise aside, is no physical match for Pridezilla. That remains true even as things hurtle toward an inevitable mano-a-mane climax, a ludicrous if enjoyable reminder that just because you've seen one killer CGI lion, it doesn't mean you've seen them maul.

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‘BEAST’

MPAA rating: R (for violent content, bloody images and some language)

Running time: 1:33

How to watch: In theaters

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©2022 Los Angeles Times. Visit latimes.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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