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Director Baltasar Kormákur’s “Beast” is better than most mid-August releases. It executes its wild-animal-gone-rogue premise in just under 90 minutes. Veteran cinematographer Philippe Rousselot shoots some gorgeous views of the South African wilderness. There’s a formidable foe that seems omniscient and indestructible, not to mention righteously vengeful. And yes, that scene from the trailer where Idris Elba punches a lion in the face is in the movie. It’s easy to imagine Leo the Lion rolling his eyes in disbelief, because like the monster in this movie, the current MGM logo is an odd-looking CGI interpretation of a lion.
Speaking of logos, this is yet another movie that would have benefited from having the grungy ol’ Universal logo from the 1970s appear at the beginning. It used to let viewers know they were in for some fun, cheesy mayhem. “Beast” has plenty of that; the murderous lion can take out an entire group of men with AR-15’s while finding time to jump on top of cars and reach into windows to swat at human prey. The screenplay by Ryan Engle doesn’t give the big cat a name, so let’s call him Rory. Rory is presumably pissed that poachers have killed his entire pride, therefore it’s his mission to execute every human he encounters with extreme prejudice. “It’s the law of the jungle,” says Martin Battles (Sharlto Copley) about how violently lions react when their pride is threatened. “And that’s the only law that applies around here.”
“Around here” is South Africa, where the ex-wife of Dr. Nate Samuels (Idris Elba) grew up with Martin. He introduced the two, and their union produced two daughters, Norah (Leah Jeffries) and their eldest, Meredith (Iyana Halley). Like her mother, Meredith is a photographer. Tragically, Nate’s ex died of cancer after their separation, causing an angry distance between Meredith and the father she feels deserted the family. Dr. Nate is taking his daughters to their mother’s old stomping grounds in the bush, hoping to repair his relationship with them. “This is so back in the day,” says Norah when she learns there’s no cell phone service nor Wi-Fi out in the middle of nowhere.
“Beast” opens with the aforementioned poachers gunning down a pride of lions, followed by a brief glimpse of Rory exacting the first of many attacks. As the film progresses, we’ll see his handiwork in more graphic detail, first on the body of a injured man who stops Martin’s Jeep seeking help. (He calls Rory “the Devil.”) When Martin goes to a nearby village to seek help, he discovers the place littered with mutilated bodies. “Lions don’t do this,” Martin tells Dr. Nate. Well, one lion does, and to prove his point, Rory traps the Samuels in their Jeep after causing them to crash during the attack. Clearly, this lion has seen “Cujo.”
From here, “Beast” is all about Dr. Nate protecting his daughters by any means necessary. The task is a little harder than one might expect, considering it felt at times that Norah and Meredith were secretly in cahoots with their predator. I mean, people do stupid things in horror movies all the time, just to get the audience to talk back to the screen, but this is excessive. Whenever Nate tells them to stay in the car, they don’t. They wander off at inopportune moments, knowing full well that Rory’s out there biding his time. When their father is trying to silently evade his nemesis, his kids start blowing the damn Jeep horn and trying to engage him on a walkie-talkie. While Jeffries and Halley effectively convey fear and heroism (one scene of retaliation against their foe is a definite crowd-pleaser), the screenplay often reduces them to frustrating antics to garner suspense.
It’s worth noting that “Beast” and the recent, far-superior film, “Prey” both have messages about hunters ravaging the animal kingdom and paying dearly for it. They also have in common the examination of a sibling bond and the message that protecting one’s family is the ultimate goal of survival. The climactic showdown in both films boils down to the hero using what they know about their location and their foe, though this film requires a lot more suspension of disbelief. When Dr. Nate goes mano-a-paws with Rory for the last time, I expected Bill Conti’s theme from “Rocky” to start playing. If Idris Elba can wrestle lions onscreen, there should be no further arguments about his credentials to be the next James Bond.
This will play better with an audience of rowdy genre movie lovers, the kind that once populated the grindhouses of Times Square and small town second-run theaters. I suspect people want to be distracted by something that makes them stand up and cheer. “Beast” serves that purpose well-enough. Kormákur knows how to toy with the audience, filling his background shots with ominous objects that may or may not be Rory the Lion. Elba and Copley play their characters straight enough to be convincing while not losing sight of the kind of movie they’re making.
I’m marginally not recommending “Beast” because I couldn’t get past the aforementioned screenplay issues, plus there are some odd, completely out of place dream sequences involving Dr. Nate’s ex that look like outtakes from Beyonce’s “Black is King.” Still, if this flick strikes your fancy, by all means you should go. It doesn’t overstay its welcome, and the ending is unexpectedly abrupt yet satisfying. If nothing else, “Beast” provides the first example I’ve seen of a theory I’ll call “Chekhov’s Lion.” You’ll know it when you see it.
Now playing in theaters.