Remember how in “The Wizard of Oz” Dorothy and company are terrified of “Lions and tigers and bears, oh my”? In the action thriller “Beast,” forget about the tigers and bears. It’s all lions, just one of them, in fact, and make that oh my! This big cat is mean, and he’s nasty. Imagine the shark in “Jaws” with paws, claws, and mane. “He’s a big one,” a poacher says. “We better get him, or he’ll come after us.” Poachers may be evil, but they aren’t dumb.
In “Beast,” Idris Elba stars as an American doctor, recently widowed, who takes his two teenage daughters back to the animal preserve in South Africa where he first met their mother. The preserve is presided over by a family friend. He’s played by Sharlto Copley. It’s nice, for a change, if also a bit disorienting, to see Copley not playing a bad guy.
It’s even nicer to see Elba wield his star power, per usual. He turns 50 next month. The passage of time has little diminished his sexiness and physical presence. What it has done is deepen and extend the sense of gravity that’s been there from the get-go. It’s also loosened a bit the concomitant sense of authority. The doctor and his wife separated before her death, and his daughters (Iyana Halley, Leah Jeffries) won’t let him forget it. So he’s not exactly in command with them. There’s a bit of scorn as well as surprise when one says, “Dad, you don’t know how to hot-wire a car?” There’s defensiveness in his reply: “No, I don’t know how to hot-wire a car. I went to medical school.”
To the movie’s credit, it tries to balance action and thrills with domestic conflict. Perhaps not surprisingly, the family stuff feels seriously subsidiary to the scary stuff. “Beast” is going through the motions with father-daughter tension. The humans-as-prey tension, that’s a different story.
There are things in “Beast” you might well expect. What, a mountain blocks the Range Rover’s CB radio signal? Oh no! Copley says, “You don’t understand: We’re in his territory now”? Of course he does. Ditto Elba’s saying “It’s fine, just stay in the car.”
There are things you might not expect. When Elba sutures a wound, he sticks his tongue out like Michael Jordan driving to the hoop. He gets to kick a lion in the snout — several times. In a bit of padding in a movie that for the most part is nicely taut, we encounter the occasional dream sequence. Too bad that mountain couldn’t block those signals, too.
“Beast” is as old as hunter-gathering, and as new as Steadicam. In this case, lots and lots of Steadicam: The director, Baltasar Kormákur, uses it to consistently good effect. Rather than a visual tic, the Steadicam work here does what Steadicam work should do, but often doesn’t: It’s involving, not distracting.
A more relevant birthday than Elba turning 50 next month may be that Liam Neeson turned 70 in June. Is Neeson (finally) aging out of the mini-genre he’s made for himself since “Taken” (2009), the older family guy who, as circumstances dictate, doubles as killing machine? If so, Elba can step right in. When he declares, “I’ve got to get my girls out of here,” he sounds positively Neesonian. This is meant as a compliment to both parties.
Directed by: Baltasar Kormákur. Written by Ryan EngleJaime Primak Sullivan. Starring Idris Elba, Sharlto Copley, Iyana Halley, Leah Jeffries. At Boston theaters, suburbs. 93 minutes. R (violent content, bloody images, some language).
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.