‘Beast’ Review: Idris Elba Shows a Berserk African Lion Who’s Boss

No animals were harmed in the making of “Beast.” Frankly, it doesn’t look like any animals were even used in the making of “Beast,” but if you can get past the idea that the two-ton lion threatening Idris Elba and his family in the movie is a singularly frightening combination of ones and zeros, not killer instinct and claws, then “Beast” is a blast.

A white-knuckle “When Animals Attack!” movie in the tradition of “Jaws” and “Anaconda,” this big-budget, big-screen release features A-list actors — OK, actor, singular — and a director who knows what he’s doing: Icelandic ace Baltasar Kormákur, who cut his teeth on such nightmare-inducing man-against-nature films as “Everest” and “Adrift.” Here, the threat is a very big, very angry African cat, understandably agitated after a group of poachers slaughtered his pride, that has decided to kill every human that crosses his path. Seriously, the body count in this movie is off the charts.

Enter Elba, who plays single dad Nate Samuels, a tough but emotionally wounded man looking to reconnect with his two daughters, Mere (Iyana Halley) and Norah (Leah Jeffries), by bringing them to the African savanna where he met their mother. He imagines the trip as a bonding experience and perhaps a way to patch things up after a tough year. Co-writers Ryan Engle and Jaime Primak Sullivan’s otherwise lean, suspense-focused script spends a lot of energy on their backstory, fleshing out problems with the parents’ marriage, mom’s death by cancer and how the girls are coping with that tragedy. Dad’s in the doghouse, but punching a killer lion in the kisser is a decent way to show how much he loves his girls.

Not all lions are ferocious, Kormákur wants to make clear, including a scene where their host, Martin (South African actor Sharlto Copley, star of “District 9”), shows how the cuddly carnivores behave toward humans they trust. Martin raised an entire pride of lions on his property from cubs, and when he approaches their territory, instead of ripping him limb from limb, the two adult males rush out to greet him, putting their (CG) paws on his shoulders and licking his face. It’s like the vfx equivalent of the “Christian the Lion” viral videos you’ve probably seen online, except, because the cats aren’t real, the scene doesn’t feel as remarkable.

It’s definitely for the best that Kormákur didn’t insist on using actual lions. If you don’t know the true story of the film “Roar” and its wildly irresponsible production, give it a Google: Director Noel Marshall tried training his big-cat cast from birth, keeping lions and such around the house for years. When it came time to shoot, he endangered his own family, as wife (and “The Birds” star) Tippi Hedren and daughter Melanie Griffith were both mauled in the making of the film.

Here, Martin takes Nate and his daughters out for a mini-safari, not realizing there’s a rogue lion on the loose. The first couple of attacks happen off-camera, as Kormákur shows the victim’s face just before a loud Dolby snarl makes the megaplex walls vibrate. Cut to black. He saves the big reveal for Nate and his daughters, who’ve exposed themselves by stepping out of the (limited) safety of Martin’s reinforced SUV. Their behavior may be risky as hell, but half the fun of the movie comes from wanting to shout at these characters to get back in the bloody car.

The movie would be pretty boring if they just huddled up there waiting for help to arrive. Instead, Kormákur commits to the R rating, piling one threat on top of another. Turns out, Martin’s an “anti-poacher” (he shoots the guys who shoot the animals on his preserve), which makes things pretty tense when the poachers from the opening scene show up, armed to the teeth — like the guerillas from Elba’s other African-beast movie, “Beasts of No Nation.” In theory, this would mean that Martin and the lion are on the same side, although there’s reasoning with a carnivore that feels so threatened, it will attack without even eating its prey.

Don’t be surprised to find a decent segment of the audience rooting for the lion — not against the Samuels clan, but against the movie’s other, more villainous characters. If a human being had suffered the same indignity this lion does in the opening scene, having its entire family slaughtered by men with guns, we’d be cheering for him to get his revenge. But Kormákur never really adopts the animal’s POV, so we’re not invited to empathize with it so much as recognize that this atypical aggression has been provoked by the poachers.

That’s where he’s lucky to have Elba, who clearly insisted on playing someone with a complicated psychology, even if all the script required was a man tough enough to take the climactic mauling “Beast” has in store for Nate. Like the great Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune, Elba in an incredibly physical performer who instinctively comes up with little bits of business to reveal the personality of his character. The ending is ludicrous, and yet it works because of all that Elba has invested in making this protective papa convincing. That’s the beauty of “Beast”: The lion may look fake, but the stakes feel real.

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