The dog days of summer have been rougher than ever in Hollywood this year, a damp end to a brighter than expected season. Front-loaded scheduling and a weaker than usual crop of August releases led to last weekend’s box office total being the lowest since May. But it’s a month that has often provided simple genre pleasures, especially on the heels of such overpriced indulgence (previous Augusts have given us Searching, Don’t Breathe and You’re Next), and after last week’s brutally effective survival thriller Fall (which also tanked, natch), this Friday’s similarly taut Beast works as another refreshing post-tentpole balm.
It’s got a costlier price tag than Fall ($36m v just $3m) and tracking suggests it might struggle to be profitable but if audiences do venture back out to the multiplex to see it, they’ll probably be as entertained as I, a no-frills B-movie pitched just right after so many A-movie counterparts got it so wrong. Like 2019’s slick summer surprise Crawl, it’s another to-the-point R-rated creature feature, light on plot and heavy on thrills, and this time it’s a lion doing the stalking and Idris Elba doing the trying not to die. Despite Elba’s prolific nature, it’s still rare for him to take the lead (he’s usually within an ensemble or sharing top billing) and Beast awards him ample screen-time to show us why he deserves more of it. Like in the underrated 2017 adventure The Mountain Between Us, he’s hugely believable in hyper-competent, high-stakes survival mode and here, he’s forced to figure a way out of a nightmarish trap when a South African vacation goes horribly wrong.
He’s taking daughters Norah (Leah Sava Jeffries) and “Mer” (Iyana Halley) away to remember their late mother in her homeland, meeting up with an old friend, wildlife biologist Martin (Sharlto Copley). But after some mercifully brief exposition, things go even further south when the group comes into contact with a particularly aggrieved lion.
Beast isn’t going anywhere you can’t predict from the trailer or even a simple logline but it’s a straight line confidently drawn, directed with more flair that one often gets from such material. The Icelandic film-maker Baltasar Kormákur, no stranger to meat and potatoes action movies having made Contraband, 2 Guns and Adrift, is keen to do more than just point and shoot and together with the Oscar-winning cinematographer Philippe Rousselot (whose illustrious career includes films such as Dangerous Liaisons, Interview with the Vampire and Big Fish), they add surprising finesse to straightforward action sequences. There’s a string of intricate, if often cheated, “oners”, swirling tracking shots that take us in and around characters and locations in ways we don’t expect. It’s not exactly 1917 but it’s refreshing to see a piece of pulp such as this squeezed so carefully, involving us in the horror of it rather than leaving us at a distance.
At a tight 93 minutes, the pace barely has time to slacken and despite the familiar family soap setup, Ryan Engle’s efficiently spare and mostly grounded script doesn’t get bogged down by maudlin monologuing. It’s a machine and little more but Elba refuses to be just a cog within it, enthusiastically showing off his often underused movie star wattage, an actor who doesn’t need to rely on clumsy exposition to turn an action lead into a real person, the specificity of his never-not-on facial emotions doing that instead. Newcomers Halley and Jeffries are both impressive naturals and the script affords them more to do than just watch and scream, allowing them a central role in trying to figure out how to survive such chaos. And while the trailers suggested otherwise, the VFX lion is more convincing than so many other pricier effects I’ve seen lately helping to make those seat-edge standoffs just that little bit more suspenseful.
In the advertising for 2011’s Liam Neeson wilderness thriller The Grey, audiences were teased with the promise of the star fighting a wolf with his bare hands but the resulting film smartly denied us such goofiness, instead offering a stark and dour treatise on life and death. The final trailer for Beast reached similar virality after showing us the sight of Elba punching a lion (which in turn led to Slate asking zoologists: would that really work?) and while yes we do see it and yes it makes a bit more sense in a less serious-minded movie, it’s also a little too far, tainting an ending that feels anticlimactic and rushed. It’s a “moment” for sure and might be a rousing one for some, but it didn’t work for me, pushing the film into a realm of ultra-silliness that it had managed to avoid before that.
August might be a washout so far for the industry but Beast couldn’t be arriving at a more apt time, a thrilling, if throwaway, reminder of the fun to be had while watching a B-movie bringing its A-game.
Beast is out in US cinemas on 19 August and in the UK on 26 August