While not quite yet a household name, the British-born Idris Elba has quietly and steadily become an A-list actor with talent and range to burn. He can do bad guys (“American Gangster,” “Beasts of No Nation”) and good ones (“Legacy,” “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom”) with equal efficiency and was one of the most interesting and conflicted characters in the landmark TV series “The Wire.” He can even do comedy with unerring ease (“The Office”).
Elba is also currently on the short list to be cast as the next James Bond; a gig he has neither lobbied for nor publicly declared he wants. That demonstrated reserve is an upper-tier level of uber-cool that cannot be bought, taught, learned, or sold. Elba oozes immense but modest self-confidence and, before all is said and done, he will be regarded as one of the formidable actors of all time.
Not a Greatest Hits Title
That said, when (hopefully, sometime in the way distant future) someone assembles an Elba “greatest hits” clip reel, any and all footage from the “Beast” will not be included in it. Although he has been involved in his fair share of clunkers (“Cats,” “Prom Night”), Elba has never been the lead in such a self-serious, well-intended, and haphazardly executed major studio misfire as “Beast.”
After watching it on opening day, I understand why the studio releasing it (Universal) didn’t make it available to U.S.-based critics prior to release.
“Beast” starts off with promise. In the dead of night, a half-dozen game poachers unload on a pride of lions, taking out all but one of them; a huge mistake. The surviving male, likely the leader of the pack and roughly the size of a Cadillac Escalade with paws like footballs, immediately dispatches two of the hunters before disappearing into the dark. As it turns out, this is the high point of the entire movie.
Visiting the Motherland
After the death of his photographer wife to cancer, Dr. Nate Samuels (Elba) takes his daughters to the area of South Africa where she grew up as sort of a “get to know your roots” thing. The eldest girl, Mere—don’t you dare call her Meredith (Iyana Halley)—is in a sour mood for the duration and is only slightly happy when snapping photos of the impressive wildlife. Like mother, like daughter.
Younger sibling Norah (Leah Sava Jeffries) is slightly more amenable but not by much. At times a precocious, halfway-endearing wisenheimer, Norah is also prone to whine and complain about everything, particularly the heat, and is given some of the lamest dialogue imaginable. “My spleen is sweating and the sweat on my spleen is sweating,” she says early on. It’s not exactly Shakespeare.
It would also appear neither of the sisters is at all capable of following basic safety instructions.
The Samuels clan is staying at the home of Martin Battles (Sharlto Copley, “District 9,” “Chappie,” “The A-Team”), an old friend of the family, who introduced Nate to his late wife and to whom the girls refer to as their uncle. Officially, Martin is a game warden but, in actuality, he’s a “safari enforcer” or “anti-poacher,” a guy whose job it is to rid the area of the type of men we meet in the opening scene.
Not long after leaving for a sight-seeing tour in a restricted area of the local preserve, Martin catches up with two adult lions he’s known since they were cubs. They hug and playfully wrestle which impresses everyone. The day begins well.
The quartet soon stops at a small Tsonga enclave littered with recently deceased corpses, presumably killed by the Cadillac Escalade. In short order, the Samuels and Martin escape but tempt fate by stopping to help another wounded soul. Martin gets out to investigate and is tossed about like a cheap chew toy, which is followed by Nate crashing the vehicle while he and the girls try to flee.
More Growl Than Bite
What could have been an above-average “Jaws” in the jungle actioner immediately hits a figurative brick wall. Well over a third of the movie takes place inside a truck-jeep-wagon-van-bus hybrid thingy with Nate and the girls trying to figure out what to do next. Every once in a while, the lion attacks them but retreats when kicked hard in the face. As lions go, this one is far more growl than bite.
In addition, the lion looks way too synthetic, especially by the always-improving state-of-the-art CGI standards. The title character in the remake of “The Lion King” makes the one in “Beast” look like 1960’s animation by comparison.
Even at just 93 minutes, “Beast” often feels padded and stretched. Icelandic director Baltasar Kormakur (“2 Guns,” “Everest”) and journeyman screenwriter Ryan Engle paint themselves into a narrative corner with no chance of logical or believable escape. The final showdown scene is laughably inept, improbable, impossible to swallow, and goes far in insulting the audience’s intelligence.
Elba is called on to play protector, victim, loving father, and action hero and, for the most part, he pulls it off. We never get the sense that he’s not fully committed to the role, which is a testament to his acting acumen, but Nate simply isn’t a very deep or interesting character.
As this is late August (the wasteland and clearinghouse month of the film industry), “Beast” shouldn’t surprise anyone with its level of mediocrity and unimaginative content; this is what happens each and every year in the dog days of the late summer season.
Presented in English with infrequent subtitled Tshivenda, South Africa’s official language.
Director: Baltasar Kormakur
Stars: Idris Elba, Sharlto Copley, Iyana Halley, Leah Sava Jeffries
Running Time: 1 hour, 33 minutes
MPAA Rating: R
Release Date: Aug. 19, 2022
Rating: 2.5 out of 5