Let us begin with a few words in praise of Iyana Halley, the young actress tasked with playing a trope and knocking that trope out of the park.
In “Beast,” the “This is Us” ensemble member is the Hollywood idea of EveryTeen, the daughter in many a thriller who picks the worst moments to rebel, the most idiotic times to lash-out and unload all her personal issues with the parent tasked with saving her naive, know-it-all ass from the worst possible predicament.
As Meredith — who will correct you to “Mer” the minute you meet her — she blames her doctor dad (Idris Elba) for the premature death of her mother, for dragging them to a South African nature preserve near where their mother grew up. The only thing left unsaid is her blaming him for putting them within reach of the lion hellbent on killing every two-legged human in sight for the slaughter of his pride by poachers.
Halley is irritating every time Meredith-sorry-“Mer” abruptly blurts out something judgmental at her father, infuriating every single time she ignores his “Stay in the truck” and “look after your SISTER (Leah Jeffries),” maddening every time she takes on the role of “putting people in needless danger” character that every ensemble thriller has to have.
She’s your average annoying teen on steroids, in other words, stopping just short of “Gosh, when’s the lion going to eat that pain in the neck?” Well done.
“Beast” is an over-the-top savage and sometimes head-slappingly silly animal attack thriller. Its artfully paranoid and claustrophobic, comically cuddly and pretty much begs the audience to shout at the screen. A lot.
Oh God, don’t do THAT! Oh, come on. You IDIOTS!
Thanks to Halley’s unerring turn as the designated do-what-I-want-you’re-not-the-boss-of-me, “IDIOTS” isn’t always plural.
Elba ably plays Nate, a New York doctor whose estranged wife has just died. So he and his two daughters, Mer and Norah have made a pilgrimage back to South Africa, where his wife and he (it is implied) grew up. An old college buddy (Sharlto Copley) lives on this wildlife preserve in a big, half-rundown villa. He hems and haws about exactly what his work is, but Internet savvy Norah’s figured it out.
“He’s an ANTI-poacher,” one of those guys who shoots at the armed-to-the-teeth gangs who slaughter protected wildlife for profit. We’ve seen such a gang wipe out a pride of lions in a late night ambush in the film’s opening scene. “Wiped out” that is, save for one male, who tears a few poachers apart at the start of a rampage that consumes the rest of the movie.
A few scenes of family tension, eventually disarmed with a warm and cuddly reunion with (digitally animated) lions later, they stumble across a slaughtered village. No more hunting for animals to photograph. The four of them have just turned into prey, “law of the jungle” and all that.
Icelandic action director Baltasar Kormákur films this just the way he framed Denzel and Mark Wahlberg in “Two Guns.” The camera circles scene after scene, heightening the fear and paranoia of of the would-be victims about what’s “out there.” The attacks are in-your-face shocks, all close-ups and quick cuts to make us forget that the murderous menace snarling and swiping its paw at them is animated into the scene with them.
There’s even a moment where we can see Elba’s face digitally added to the body he’s using to tangle with the King of the Beasts.
At several points I was reminded on the perfectly paranoid killer (digital) gator thriller “Crawl” as I watched this family-plus-guide try to work the problem while claustrophobically trapped in a wrecked Toyota Land Cruiser, with a vengeful lion punching out the windows and taking bites of this and that. Dr. Nate, stuck under the SUV, about to be eaten and knowing it is about as primal as human fear gets.
Nate has time to dream of his late wife in an African afterlife context. But those dreams are interrupted by nightmares of what might happen to them all thanks to what’s coming for them all.
It’s just that the logic of many moments is simply loopy, some scenes play as pure, poorly contrived corn, and the problem-solving leaves a lot to be desired. “Beast” doesn’t necessarily traffic in great frights. It’s all about the shock-scares, sudden arrivals by The Beast Who Cannot Be Killed…apparently.
The violence is WAY over the top, especially in the otherwise eye-rolling finale. Anybody taking young children to this can reasonably expect their nightmares to begin on the drive home.
All that said, “Beast” is a briskly brief popcorn picture, even if we can’t take its “Lion King” killer lion as seriously as the animators would like, even if what its most annoying teen does is just give us our own flashbacks.
Rating: R for violent content, bloody images and some language.
Cast: Idris Elba, Iyana Halley, Leah Jeffries and Sharlto Copley
Credits: Directed by Baltasar Kormákur, scripted by Ryan Engle. A Universal release.
Running time: 1:33