'Beast' review: Good dad Idris Elba battles ticked-off CGI lion for a tolerable mane event

·3 min read

Rule of the movie jungle: It’s harmful to one’s health to square up with a vengeful and ridiculously dangerous lion – computer-generated image or real – even if you’re Idris Elba.

Elba’s signature cool gets tossed around a bit, though the British actor does get to throw haymakers at a roaring creature in the mane event of “Beast” (★★½ out of four; rated R; in theaters Friday). The over-the-top survival thriller definitely fits into the aesthetic of Hollywood’s August burn-off period, where bad (and so-bad-they’re-good) movies reign, though Elba’s charisma goes a long way in terms of enjoyability as do some hair-raising animal attacks.

Directed by Baltasar Kormákur (“Everest,” “2 Guns”), the film begins with recently widowed Nate Samuels (Elba) taking his teenage daughters Mare (Iyana Halley) and Norah (Leah Jeffries) on a trip to the South African savanna where Nate met their mom. The three are still reeling following her death from cancer when they meet up with old friend Martin (Sharlto Copley), a wildlife biologist who shows the visitors around his reserve – including a family of lions.

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Nate (Idris Elba, left) tends to his injured friend Martin (Sharlto Copley) and addresses daughters Mare (Iyana Halley) and Norah (Leah Jeffries) after a lion attack in "Beast."
Nate (Idris Elba, left) tends to his injured friend Martin (Sharlto Copley) and addresses daughters Mare (Iyana Halley) and Norah (Leah Jeffries) after a lion attack in "Beast."

Another pride, however, was just slaughtered by poachers, all except for one huge male lion that escaped. Ticked off and out for blood – any human’s will do – the rogue beast attacks the group, savagely injuring Martin and turning their van into the one thing keeping them alive. It’s not even good at that, as the lion pushes the vehicle and comes flying through the window, and Nate fights to keep everyone safe from this monster.

“Beast” is lean and mean at 93 minutes, but still the movie takes its time to get to the good stuff. Once the vicious lion starts stalking its prey – and claustrophobic attacks lead to an epic face-off between man and nature – the film finds its way and offers up some decent jump scares before the story begins to dip toward far-fetched fantasy. You will have to endure some forgettable B-movie dialogue: “We’re in his territory now,” Copley somehow says with a straight face as the movie’s four-legged villain makes his presence felt.

For a digital critter, the main lion’s not bad and feels real, especially in the night scenes where it comes off as a horror villain on a bloody paw-ful killing spree. (Is there enough CGI lion? Never.) Logic takes a nosedive later on, as the lion becomes an obsessive combination of Cujo, the Terminator and the shark from “Jaws.” What’s interesting, be it a conscious choice or a budgetary one, is that while the primary antagonist is a ripping, biting, tearing terror on people, the camera looks away when there’s creature-on-creature carnage – a decision that plays well for the animal lovers in the audience.

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Norah Samuels (Leah Jeffries) checks out some weaponry hiding from a deadly animal in "Beast."
Norah Samuels (Leah Jeffries) checks out some weaponry hiding from a deadly animal in "Beast."

But “Beast” tends to force human emotion: The narrative hints at a cultural exploration around Nate’s late wife and her village but it’s fleeting. Plus, when you have children in danger, you don’t have to do a lot to imagine a guy going into super-dad mode, and the film leans conveniently with its story choices. (People tend to be wounded in the path of an out-of-control big cat, so good thing Nate’s a doctor!)

It isn’t Elba’s “Sharknado” but also not exactly his “Out of Africa,” so just enjoy this late-summer flick for what it does well: a primal fight between man and very mad lion that brings unhinged beauty to a rousing “Beast.”

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Beast' review: Idris Elba fights a CGI lion in over-the-top thriller