Beast review: Idris Elba vs a big bloody lion

Idris Elba in Beast
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Here’s a nice end of summer surprise: a lean, brutal thriller that stars Idris Elba and a made up lion – here’s our review of Beast.

It seems a nailed-on certainty that at least 80% of reviews of Beast will make mention of the fact that a character, early on, walks around with a Jurassic Park T-shirt on. A tacit acknowledgment of a key influence on the film. I’m getting my mention out of the way in the first paragraph. No point pretending I’m not going to include it too.

I like to think then that whilst millions of people were piling into Disney’s 2019 remake of The Lion King and thinking this all looks remarkably familiar, screenwriters Ryan Engle and Jaime Primak Sullivan saw opportunity. If you can have a photo-realistic lion singing and entertaining the kids, after all, why can’t you have one trying to rip the limbs off Idris Elba?

Beast, then. A lean action thriller, set up with a slimline tonic of a plot, and a bloody big lion in a very bad mood.

That setup sees Idris Elba as Dr Nate Samuels, a man who wasn’t around when his estranged wife died from cancer. This, as you’d expect, didn’t go unnoticed by his daughters Meredith and Norah, played by Iyana Halley and Leah Jeffries respectively. There’s tension in the air, and a disconnected family, who for reasons that were no doubt great at the time, end up going to a nature reserve, catching up with a further relative who happens to be the always-entertaining Sharlto Copley’s Martin Battles.

Things degenerate. Angry lion – it’s all talked out during one of the film’s occasional stop and explain sessions – attacks, Sharlto’s nearly in pieces, and suddenly Dr Guilty Father and his two daughters are stuck in an unfamiliar place, with a feral lion fancying a bit of take-out. It’s all set up for Idris Vs Lion in a traditional movie face off. What’s surprising is said face off turns out to be a fair bit more interesting than I was expecting.

There’s a few reasons why.

Firstly, step forward director Baltasar Kormákur. Of his previous work, I maintain that 2 Guns is a hugely underappreciated movie. Conversely, the last time he brought us a survival story in a testing environment – Everest – didn’t really look that convincing to my IMAX-ticket eyes. Yet even though Beast inevitably relies heavily on CG for its creatures – taking a leaf out of the book of 2022 breakthrough hit RRR – I completely bought them.

I’d hate to see what Kormákur’s pre-production planning looked like, but heck does it pay off. He plants his camera on locations where it’s free to swirl anywhere, and it does. It swirls for a long time too. No quick cuts here to hide stuff. Key sequences in the film run long, and for good reason. The camera follows characters round, explores nooks and crannies, sweeps past open doors and windows to build tension, and it works. I found myself watching to see details in the background, and I started to claw the arms of my seat without knowing.

Then, when let’s just say things happen, there’s an unexpected brutality to it too. It’s interesting that Beast is getting – deservedly – a big screen release, as there’s none of that shaving it down to get a PG-13/12A here. This is the kind of film two years ago I’d have expected studios to balk at and Netflix to allow through unsullied. Now, it’s a studio that’s taken a chance on it. A brutal B-movie at heart.

The performances are the other key ingredients here. This is a movie star role for Elba and he doesn’t waste it. One minute he’s doing on the fly medical work, the next he’s seeing a lion jump towards him at speed. Backed up by excellent support from Copley, Halley and Jeffries, the core quartet sell the hell out of this thing.

They can’t paper over its thinness, mind. The flashback sequences, the guilt-ridden backstory? It feels a fairly obvious way to add a bit of depth to it all, a swiftly-forgotten bit of storybuilding that’s bashed through as fast as possible. Plus, we’re in the territory of films such as The Edge, The Ghost & The Darkness and a tiny bit of The Grey here. The mighty Congo is steered clear of, though.

Yet Beast carves a niche for itself. It’s relatively straightforward, it doesn’t throw in any more plot than it needs, and at its best, it’s a surprisingly effective end of summer brawl, with an underpinned confidence in what it’s doing. A sequel might be pushing it, but a rewatch of Idris Elba trying to be lord of the thunder cats feels entirely palatable.

There’s someone with a Jurassic Park T-shirt in it, by the way.

Beast arrives in UK cinemas on August 26th.

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