In a world where studio blockbusters bend over backwards to try and craft cinematic universes, crack way too many jokes and push the boundaries of visual effects, it’s really nice to just have a summer movie where Idris Elba squares off against an evil lion. Beast, the latest from reliable icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur, is a lean, mean, lion-fighting machine, the kind of cheesy-yet-engrossing popcorn thriller that used to dominate the multiplex. It’s not a film you can really wax poetic about, but it’s hard not to romanticize a movie that just stays so gloriously in its lane and delivers exactly what you’d want in a movie like this.
Following in the grand tradition of Africa-set creature features like The Ghost and the Darkness and Rogue Lion pits Idris Elba, Sharlto Copley and two relative newcomers in Iyana Halley and Leah Sava Jeffries against a big, angry, blood-mouthed lion who is basically seeking revenge on all humans after poachers killed his pack. Elba, Halley and Jeffries make up a familial trio mourning the loss of a mother, while Copley is a longtime friend who invites them to his reserve for an exclusive safari. Though, well, the movie can’t happen if things don’t go poorly fast for our quartet, with the titular hangry lion lurking in the brush.
The convenience of the characters, Elba being a surgeon, Copley a professional animal wrangler, and possible “anti-poacher,” allows the film to glide along without too many hiccups. This is the type of film that dies on the vine if it’s too bogged down with superfluous details, with a subplot revolving around Elba’s estranged relationship with his eldest kept at just the right tempo to not interfere with the survivalism.
Elba has been waiting for such a vehicle his whole career, the right kind of B-movie where his physical presence and ability to command on-screen gravity to his will helps buoy the film when it can’t help but toss out some jump scares and crazy scenarios for our heroes to overcome. This is a carnival attraction in some ways, a film like 2019’s alligators-in-a-hurricane chase film Crawl that is perfectly content in just tossing whatever out at you as you watch humans take on nature in the most overdramatized ways. Copley is a game second fiddle, and Halley and Jeffries do just enough to blend their dramatic lifting with their delicate role as the two characters who get to be horrified when the lion tries to eat them.
Beast tosses in a few scant ideas about the dangers of poachers, not letting us forget that the evil lion was sparked by the acts of evil men, but this is primarily a sensory experience in all the best ways. You can’t help but laugh at points just for how the film refuses to let up on our protagonists, for all the ways this prick of the pride just cannot wait to kill anything in his wake. Beast is a film that fully embraces its B-movie identity and stands as one of the few legitimate surprises of the summer. In a vacuum of countless blockbuster disappointments over the last few months, Beast has a thing or two to teach its peers.