A straightforward, dog days of summer creature feature, the rampaging Beast (★★☆☆☆) pulls up with a man vs. beast premise straight out of Cujo. But oddly enough, the monster movie it most brings to mind is Jaws: The Revenge.
Not the high point of that franchise, the fourth Jaws, like Beast, revolves around a wild predator that targets a specific human population, not as food, but to exact revenge for crimes committed against their family.
For this alternately gripping and ridiculous action-thriller, directed by Baltasar Kormákur (2 Guns), a rogue lion on a South African reserve is hellbent on revenge after poachers viciously hunt down his entire pride.
That same reserve is the site of many fond memories for American surgeon Dr. Nate Daniels, played with rugged dad-swag by Cats star Idris Elba.
Wrestling with feelings over his South African-born wife’s recent death, Dr. Nate returns to the reserve with his teen daughters, moody Mer (Iyana Halley) and snarky Norah (Leah Sava Jeffries), for some much-needed family bonding.
Elba, Halley, and Jeffries etch a convincing portrait of a loving family unit at odds as they each plunge through grief alone, yet all together.
Their squabbles sound like the real deal — though, as well-acted as those scenes are, the film indulges too much of the drama. We get it, their hearts are broken, but they’ll survive as a family if they can rely on each other.
Dr. Nate’s good buddy Martin (Sharlto Copley), a Crocodile Dundee-type who hosts them on the reserve, knows well enough to stay out of family business.
Described as “an enforcer” protecting the reserve from poachers, he takes the Daniels fam out on safari around the range, where they encounter the killer king cat terrorizing the savanna.
Viewers might wonder if maybe Martin’s in cahoots with the poachers, or just isn’t much of an enforcer, since the film does open with that gang wiping out almost an entire pride of lions somewhere on his reserve. Later, he drives right past a vehicle abandoned by the poachers, seemingly taking no notice of the two buzzards perched on the seats, tearing into the fresh carcass of perhaps a poacher.
Whoever’s paying Martin to protect this range isn’t really getting their money’s worth. Or, the character merely suffers the many lapses in logic embedded in Ryan Engle’s script. Chief among those is the film’s depiction of its ferocious, man-stalking apex predator as devoid of a big cat’s sense of smell or hearing.
Trapped in their disabled land cruiser by the beast, Nate, Martin, and the girls attempt various means of escape, often resulting in stalk-and-chase sequences where the lion conveniently can’t smell or hear heavy-breathing, scared-shitless humans cowering inches from its face.
And lucky them that the enormous crocodiles evident in the pond they stumble upon choose to drift away quietly, never to return, even with an injured lion-attack victim bleeding into the water for hours.
Shot entirely in South Africa, Beast might have made far better use of its savage beasts’ natural abilities. At least the movie makes excellent use of visual effects and sound design to create a CGI antagonist that appears as alive onscreen as any of the flesh-and-blood actors. Even in the climactic, mano a mano showdown between Elba and the raging lion, the creature has weight and presence.
It doesn’t look at all times like a perfectly drawn lion, but it looks and sounds like it’s there, not cheaply pasted in after the fact. Consequently, the lion attacks, staged in the tight quarters of the cruiser, or amidst the shadows of the bush, are nerve-rackingly tense.
And that should suffice for some fans looking to wind down the season with a man-hunting monster movie.
Beast is playing in theaters nationwide, including Landmark Theatres. Visit www.landmarktheatres.com or www.fandango.com.
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