For an actor as talented and as popular as Idris Elba, he sure has made his share of bad movies.
And based on the trailers for his latest, BEAST (2022), a tale where he plays a dad protecting his two daughters from a menacing lion in the wilds of Africa, I expected this one to be added to that list. The good news is BEAST is not a bad movie.
Not at all.
BEAST opens in Africa, where we see a bunch of poachers killing a pride of lions, but the male lion gets away and moments later returns to attack and kill the poachers who had remained in search of him. So, right off the bat, we learn that this isn’t just some random hungry lion, but rather, an animal with an agenda. He’s out for revenge, against the poachers or any other human who gets in his way!
Cue Dr. Nate Samuels (Idris Elba) and his two teenage daughters Meredith (Iyana Halley) and Norah (Leah Jeffries) who arrive in Africa from the U.S. to reconnect after the death of Nate’s wife and the girls’ mother. Nate and his wife had been separated, and while separated, she had died from cancer. Meredith blames her dad for not being there for their mother while she was sick, and the guilt is something Nate carries with him deeply. He never intended not to be there for his wife, and he wants to make amends now by being there for his daughters. His wife was born in Africa, hence the trip, to reconnect with her roots.
They are greeted by Martin Battles (Sharlto Copley), Nate’s good friend and uncle to his daughters. Martin is the man who introduced Nate to his wife, and so they all share a special connection. Martin spends his days helping the authorities keep the poachers away from the animals. When he takes Nate and his daughters out for a ride through the wilds of Africa, they unfortunately cross paths with the vengeful lion from the movie’s opening, an animal with only one goal in mind: kill every human it comes in contact with.
And that’s the set up for the rest of the movie, as it pits Elba’s Dr. Nate Samuels against the vicious lion, as Nate vows never again to let his daughters down.
As premises go, the one in BEAST isn’t bad, but it’s not great either. The reason it works however is the material is handled well by everyone involved.
The screenplay by Ryan Engle, based on a story by Jaime Primak Sullivan, rises above the material mostly because the dialogue is excellent, and it gets the dynamic between Nate and his daughters right. They act like real people, and when you put real people in danger, you have an exciting movie. There is just so much stress in the conversations between Nate and his daughters, and all of it comes off as real. It also helps that both Meredith and Norah have distinctive personalities. There’s one scene where Nate tells his daughters to stay behind while he goes up ahead to see what’s going on, and when Martin tells him to run, and he turns to say the same to the girls, he sees that Norah is missing, and he asks Meredith where she is, and she says she was there minute ago. As Nate desperately searches for his youngest daughter, he says to Meredith, “You had one job!” In this one moment, you have genuine father/daughter angst plus the suspense of the rogue lion closing in on them.
Engle co-wrote the screenplay to RAMPAGE (2018), a very different “attacking animal” movie, as that film, which told the story of a giant ape and some other giant monsters, was based on the popular video game and was high camp and was a perfect vehicle for Dwayne Johnson. Engle also wrote a pair of Liam Neeson action thrillers, THE COMMUTER (2018) and NON-STOP (2014), both of which were formulaic but ultimately worked because they were Liam Neeson action thrillers! I liked these movies, and BEAST is not only on par with them, but it’s probably the best of the lot for creating realistic believable characters.
Director Baltasar Kormakur also does a nice job here. First and foremost, the lion scenes are intense, better than I expected. Sure, it’s CGI, but it looks really good. The best part is the lion moves with a speed and a ferocity that is quite scary. There are these quick bursts of insane aggressive energy which jostle the audience. Even though the final outcome of this movie is never in question, the lion sequences where he constantly attacks Nate and his daughters are quite suspenseful.
And of course, the film takes place in the wilds of Africa, which is a plus. I believe it was movie critic Gene Siskel who once said when he was reviewing the Sidney Pollack film OUT OF AFRICA (1985), a love story starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford which took place in Africa, that any movie which was set in Africa would be improved just by the scenery and setting alone. He wasn’t wrong.
But I didn’t go to see BEAST because of its African scenery or its marauding lion. I went to see it because of Idris Elba. As I said, he’s a terrific actor, and I’m a big fan. And yes, he has made his share of bad movies…. NO GOOD DEED (2014) and THE DARK TOWER (2017) come to mind…. but the thing about Elba is, regardless of the movie, he always delivers a top performance and often lifts up lesser movies by his performance alone. And when he’s in a movie that really works, like THE SUICIDE SQUAD (2021) for example, the results are usually outstanding.
Elba is terrific here in the lead role as Dr. Nate Samuels, a man who is guilt-ridden over the death of his wife, since he wasn’t there for her, and who is hell-bent on protecting his daughters from the menacing lion. He’s also believable in the physical aspects of the role, having to go toe to toe— or is it claw to claw?— with the lion, even if towards the end some of the sequences do border on the far-fetched. The other neat thing about his character is at first his daughters seem to have lost a lot of respect for him, and later, when his skills as a doctor become so important to their survival, and they witness this, it makes for some noteworthy moments.
Of course, the gold standard for Elba fans remains his work on the superior TV show LUTHER (2010-2019). And for years now, Elba’s name has been floated as possibly being the next James Bond, and even though the producers of that series are supposedly seriously interested in him for the role, he’s on record this year as saying he’s not interested in Bond, so it sounds like that’s not going to happen. Which is too bad. He’d be really good.
Both Iyana Halley as Meredith and Leah Jeffries as Norah bring their characters to life, and they represent a complicated family dynamic that only ads to the tension in the film. They are both fiercely independent characters, and for example, at one point when Nate tells them to say inside the vehicle, Meredith believes otherwise and doesn’t listen to her father. What makes this moment and these characters work is that she’s not wrong, She sets out to do something she believes she can do, and she does it.
It’s been a while since I’ve seen Sharlto Copley in a movie, and he’s fine here in a supporting role as family friend and guide Martin Battles. Back in his heyday, Copley was playing major roles in some pretty big science fiction movies, as the soft-spoken hero in DISTRICT 9 (2009) and as the violent and vicious villain in ELYSIUM (2013).
BEAST was better than I expected. It’s a well-written movie that creates believable characters and puts them in danger. For the most part, it keeps things realistic, although things do grow more far-fetched towards the end, and its ending does strain credibility. I think most people would be dead when put in similar predicaments. Elba’s Nate pretty much challenges the lion to a hand-to-hand combat battle. Yeah. That’s the one part of the movie that— yeah.
But the rest is all very good. You have an exciting story throughout, amazing African scenery, and yet another worthy performance by Idris Elba anchoring the whole thing.
BEAST is a genuine popcorn movie that provides solid summertime entertainment.
Give it a roar!