Sharks, grizzlies, giant snakes and rampaging apes have traditionally been the go-to choices for animal-kingdom antagonists in survival thrillers. Lions not so much. Maybe the king of the jungle has always been too regal, too majestic – too heroic – to be lowered to the status of mere summer-movie marauder.
But the circle of life also pertains to movies, and it was probably inevitable that the lion’s time would come. That’s, at least, the nature of “Beast,” a surprisingly agile and nifty B-movie graced by Idris Elba’s formidable presence, fluid camerawork and tolerable levels of implausibility.
It’s a movie well engineered as a late-summer diversion – a big cat movie for the dog days of August – that Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur (“Adrift,” “Everest”) insures stays well within the paths of man-against-nature films before it. But while the lion is CGI, the South African location is genuine, and Kormákur and cinematographer Philippe Rousselot’s long, well-choreographed takes give “Beast” an immersive quality well beyond the genre’s usual slapdash cutting.
But how do you make a lion a diabolical hunter? “Beast,” written by Ryan Engle, opens with poachers mowing down a pride of lions. But one – a big one – escapes, and has a preternatural taste for avenging the killings and protecting its territory. The lion’s ferocity is easy to empathize with, ever to root for. Having had his family taken from him, he’s like the Liam Neeson of lions.
This is what Nate Samuels (Elba) and his two daughters, Meredith (Iyana Halley) and Norah (Leah Jeffries), walk into. They’ve just arrived in South Africa, a trip that Nate hopes will be a healing one for the family. They’re still reeling from the death of Nate’s wife from cancer, a loss that Mere and Norah partly blame on Nate, a doctor. The pair had also separated a year before her death, adding to the family friction.
But what’s better at ailing abandonment issues than a man-hunting lion? After reuniting with an old friend, Martin (Sharlto Copley), a vehemently anti-poacher wildlife biologist, the four set out in a jeep to explore the savanna. It doesn’t take long before they stumble across the lion’s victims and find themselves fending off his attacks from the vehicle. When Martin radios that the lion is staring right at him, one of the daughters gamely asks, “Is that a little, um, unnatural?”
There’s the backdrop of animal treatment, but “Beast” is mostly unburdened by larger meaning. For most of its brisk 93-minute running time, the Samuels tussle with the animal in a game of (big) cat and mouse. The shark in “Jaws” put an entire community under the microscope, but the scope of “Beast” is narrowly fixed on Nate and his girls. There isn’t any beast within here, just a beast.
But with lively supporting performances from Halley and Jeffries and a commanding one from Elba, they make a realistic, often bickering family. Elba’s commitment to the film gives it more psychological weight than it might deserve. Nothing will surprise you in how “Beasts” unfolds except for how engrossing it manages to be.