Beast: rip-roaring gladiatorial adventure

Baltasar Kormákur’s taut thriller pits Idris Elba against a livid lion, forgoing exposition and subplots in favour of febrile adrenalin highs.

Idris Elba in Beast (2022)

Provoked by poachers who’ve decimated his pride – and then increasingly un-choosy about the other humans who should die for the poachers’ sins – an outsized African lion goes on the rampage in Baltasar Kormákur’s Beast, whose mangy, raging feline is like the Ghost and the Darkness (the lions from Stephen Hopkins’s 1996 adventure film of that name) rolled into one.

In the other corner: Idris Elba, whose action-icon potential is unlocked by Beast’s elemental, survival-of-the-fittest premise. Elba plays Dr. Nate Samuels, a laconic man of science who lands in South Africa with his two teenage daughters in tow for a safari-cum-family-therapy-session – the Savannah being the childhood home of the girls’ late mother. Lingering heartache aside, Samuels acclimatises nicely to the unforgiving environment; the bigger the movie, the more Elba tends to underplay, and the strategy serves him well in a role that’s defined more by physical presence than any sort of complex psychology. Broad-shouldered and alert, emotionally solid and soulful, he’s an underdog worth rooting for, and in this enjoyably stripped down, neo-B-movie context, that’s good enough.

At a taut ninety minutes, Beast doesn’t have time for exposition or subplots, and carries only the swiftest whisper of ecological subtext. (Nate’s best pal, played by Sharlto Copley, is an “anti-poacher” who bemoans the mercenary hunters encroaching on his reserve). The messages about the upshot of Samuels’ return to their ancestral homeland are mixed to say the least, with solemn reverence soon replaced by gaping terror. Kormákur, whose résumé includes not one but two Mark Wahlberg shoot-’em-ups, isn’t particularly delicate about depicting other cultures (most of the locals are just lion food anyway) but knows how to get a movie moving, quickly plunging Nate and his family into a series of deadly cat-and-city-mouse games. These unfold in roving, CGI-assisted long takes with seamlessly integrated special effects and a keen sense of spatial geography. The inevitable jump scares are leveraged against passages where sustained visibility itself is a source of fright; an extended nighttime stalk-and-hide set-piece in a swamp is suffused with dread.

The script is riddled with implausibilities, but they’re easily overlooked when watching Elba hold his own against an apex predator without drifting into superhero territory; not since Jaume Collet-Serra’s The Shallows (2016) has a film of this kind managed to strike this tonal balance. And Kormákur’s final solution to the problem of staring down a five-hundred-pound lion is satisfyingly inspired – the best National Geographic-style deus ex machina since Jurassic Park.

► Beast is in UK cinemas now.