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Review: Beast – “Fun, entertaining, re-watchable, occasionally silly”

Idris Elba is a star. He’s a fantastic actor, he’s so ludicrously handsome that he could un-curdle milk from 200 paces, and he’s so charismatic that both black holes and light bend toward him.

But… he hasn’t had the greatest run in movies, has he? Arguably, he’s been much more successful on TV. Stringer Bell, from The Wire, is a legend. Luther is the closest we’ve come so far to an on-screen black Batman. Even Turn Up Charlie was a lot of fun.

Movie wise though… okay, so he had a recurring role as Heimdall in the MCU, but he was a minor character. He was one of the few good things about Prometheus. Molly’s Game was excellent, but have you seen it? The less said about Cats, the better. The Suicide Squad was an ensemble cast. As for lead film roles… it’s a struggle. The Mountain Between Us never really felt visceral or engaging, despite its stars. The Take was a lot of fun, but again probably underseen. The Dark Tower was a calculated gamble that was hamstrung by a combination of fan expectation and studio confusion.

He’s hardly unique in this regard. How many nailed-on leading black actors are there? Denzel, obviously. Will Smith had a great run, but he was already on shaky ground before the slap. Elba’s fellow alum from The Wire, Michael B Jordan. Samuel L Jackson has led some movies, but not many. The biggest female names that come to mind are probably Whoopi Goldberg, Thandiwe Newton, Pam Grier, and Viola Davis … there’s a whole host of fantastic younger talent, but again… leading roles? People filmmakers would choose automatically to build a film around?

It’s not a great look for Hollywood. Things do appear to be slowly changing for the better. Slowly. It’s great that we have a black Captain America, but ludicrous that there is controversy about a potential black James Bond.

Now, of course, the actors and their agents impact this. Denzel Washington asked for the first sight of any script which Harrison Ford rejected, or so I heard. But luck is a factor too. Sony, the production company behind The Dark Tower, doesn’t have the greatest track record with beloved stories and characters. A braver studio could have made a series of movies to rival the most beloved franchises.

So, here we are again with a new vehicle for Elba in Beast, released in cinemas today. There must be so much positive will behind this. The man deserves a critical and commercial smash. Does it deliver? Well … kind of.

Beast, on the face of it, is a people versus nature survival thriller. It seems to be aiming for the hallowed ground of Jaws, which so many films since have tried and failed to occupy. The trailer brought back memories of The Grey, the 2011 thriller whose marketing famously showed that Liam Neeson had added wolf-punching to his particular set of skills, before revealing itself as more of an existential meditation on loss and grief than an action movie, and confusing audiences as a result.

Here Elba has also recently lost his wife, though they were estranged. To help rebuild the brittle relationship with his eldest daughter, he takes her and her sister back to his childhood home, South Africa, where they stay with his oldest friend, Martin, played by Sharlto Copley. The teenage girls are played by Iyana Halley and Leah Jeffries, and the performances from all four leads are outstanding.  They are naturalistic and completely believable. With the focus on him for most of the film, Elba once again more than proves his talent and star power.

The movie is directed by Baltasar Kormákur, probably best known for Everest from 2015. That was a pretty good movie, but arguably more impactful was The Deep, from 2012, based on the astonishing true story of Guðlaugur Friðþórsson, a 22-year-old Icelandic fisherman who survived six hours in freezing seas, followed by a three-hour trek across lava fields to rescue.

Overall, the direction and cinematography are simple, unpretentious, and clear. You always have a good sense of location and events. When he does turn on the style for action, the experience is intense and compelling. In particular, there are some extended takes that are wonderfully filmed without being intrusive. Nothing gets in the way.

Great effects should be unnoticeable, and they are. The lion feels real throughout.

Sound design is a tricky one. There’s a jump scare in this movie which is fantastic and – literally – impactful. It’s a very good reason to see the film at the cinema.  If you have any interest in the film at all, and if you have anything less than a full-scale Atmos set up at home (if you do, you’ll know), then go to the theatre to watch it.

However, when the same sound effect is used later on in a different context, it’s deeply annoying. Please, scare us with wit and invention, not hackneyed gimmicks.

The weakest part of the movie for me is the story. When it plays out as two Alpha Males fighting for their packs, it shines, delivering on all the excitement of that trailer. But there are clashing themes. Part of the story is a kind of sub-Gaia hypothesis tale of nature’s vengeance. While it can be viscerally enjoyable to watch poachers being torn to pieces by their prey, the screenplay fails to marry these story threads compellingly.

The film’s producer Will Packer says, “When hunters [poachers] forcefully separate out alpha lions by killing other members of their pack, they create rogue lions. So this film is also an examination of what happens when a rogue lion discovers who the real enemy is: humans ourselves.”

Fair enough, but it doesn’t help that a character in the film says that more or less verbatim. Show, don’t tell. On the one hand, it’s great that the filmmakers are taking care to show lions as the magnificent creatures they are and to establish a reason for one of them becoming a ‘man-eater.’ It’s well established the negative impact Jaws has had on sharks, for example. On the other hand, it feels like two separate stories are struggling to get out… either one of which might have been ultimately more satisfying. Another couple of script drafts would have helped.

There was also a strange phenomenon at the screening. The audience laughed. A lot. Although they did enjoy the intentional humour, it was unfortunate that many of the loudest laughs occurred during plot developments, supposedly serious moments in the film.

Okay, the vast majority of the people in that screening were critics. You won’t find a much more cynical audience, and sure, any film like this is going to have some plot holes and the odd unlikely event, but the derision felt unwarranted and unfair.

Go see it for yourself and decide if you agree. Having mentioned Jaws a couple of times, it raises the question, how does Beast compare? Well, it’s no Jaws. Of course it isn’t. But what about Idris Elba?

Well, here’s a thought for you. God forbid they ever remake Jaws, but if they did, Idris Elba is one of the few people who could smash the role of Quint out of the park. Will this film catapult him to the superstardom he so richly deserves? No. If you continue the Jaws analogy, by that measure, this is more of a Deep Blue Sea: fun, entertaining, re-watchable, occasionally silly, but not destined to become a classic.

The biggest star of that movie, and the best actor, was Samuel L Jackson, who was stunt cast to be killed off in the third reel, so at least this is progress. Most importantly though, when it works, Beast is a blast.

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