Beast review: Idris Elba vs a lion is the apex of low-expectation cinema

·3-min read
Beast review: Idris Elba vs a lion is the apex of low-expectation cinema

Dir: Baltasar Kormákur. Starring: Idris Elba, Iyana Halley, Leah Sava Jeffries, Sharlto Copley. 15, 93 minutes.

A shot of Idris Elba socking a lion in the face isn’t just the dramatic denouement of Beast – it’s the film’s entire raison d’etre. No one’s here for the scenes of Elba’s well-intentioned patriarch attempting to heal his fractured family, or the vague sentiments about nature’s karmic vengeance. Audiences will turn up because a trailer promised to show them one of our most charismatic A-listers in a boxing match with a roided-out kitty cat. Everything that comes before is just the warm-up for the main event.

In that sense, it’s impossible to argue that Beast doesn’t live up to its promise, because the only promise was another piece of recyclable pop-culture imagery. Beast is the latest entry in the man vs arbitrary animal Hall of Fame, filed right next to Samuel L Jackson getting shark-chomped in Deep Blue Sea (1999) and Liam Neeson charging headfirst at the alpha wolf in The Grey (2011). As for the rest of Baltasar Kormakur’s film, it at least doesn’t test its audience’s patience, establishing the Icelandic director – behind survival dramas The Deep (2012), Adrift (2018), and Everest (2015) – as exactly the steady hand needed for to deliver this brand of disposable, B-movie thrills. Beast represents the apex of low-expectation cinema.

Elba’s Dr Nate Samuels has brought his two daughters, Meredith (Iyana Halley) and Norah (Leah Sava Jeffries), to visit the South African village where their recently deceased mother grew up – the same place she and Nate first met, through mutual friend and park ranger Martin Battles (Sharlto Copley). Meredith is an especially embittered sort. Though her parents separated before her mother was diagnosed with cancer, she doesn’t feel like Nate ever did enough to support them, and neither has he shown sufficient interest in her nascent photography career. And what will better make this trio reconsider the bonds of family than an errant male lion who, after his entire pride is killed by poachers, vows (presumably, he can’t talk) to enact single-minded revenge against the entire human race?

It’s not all that thrilling to watch a premise like this unravel, since there’s no doubt about who will be punished, who will live to tell the tale, and what the antagonist’s Achilles heel will prove to be. After all, there’s only so much of a threat that a large feline can pose to a group of people who have a reinforced jeep with lockable doors. As if to compensate, Ryan Engle’s screenplay continually demeans the intelligence of his own characters in order to protract the drama. They shout. They split up. They leave the car windows open. It’s inexplicable.

But Kormakur knows how to make these movies move, and has smartly employed the aid of Oscar-winning cinematographer Philippe Rousselot, whose credits include Interview with the Vampire (1994) and Dangerous Liaisons (1988), to add some slick, visual flair to the non-stop mauling. Rousselot’s camera takes on the same prowling quality of the film’s central predator, in long, unbroken shots that wind through massacre sites and crocodile-infested waters. The lion itself, a fully CGI creation, never looks convincing – but that may not even be the point.

With his ratty, bloodied coat of fur and a deep scar carved into his snout, he’s animated more to look like the kind of John Wick-like assassin Elba might normally go toe-to-toe with, rather than anything David Attenborough would narrate over. Realism has no worth in a film this silly. So why not have a leonine antagonist that is introduced with the line, “they killed his pride… now he’s coming after us”?

‘Beast’ is in cinemas from 26 August