Director: Baltasar Kormákur
Writers: Ryan Engle, Jaime Primak Sullivan
Stars: Idris Elba, Sharlto Copley, Leah Jeffries
The tone and style of the Indian anti-terrorist action film “Beast” varies greatly, sometimes even within the same scene. This takes getting used to, especially in a “Die Hard”-style siege thriller that is also sometimes a musical comedy about a handsome single spy who also loves children and excels at dismembering and/or assassinating terrorists.
There is nothing unusual about this Masala style of Bollywood pop cinema, where the filmmakers cater to the back row with a schizoid mix of vaudeville jokes and pop culture references, overdetermined romantic interludes and nationalistic saber rattling.
“Beast,” a Kollywood star vehicle for Vijay, still feels different, if only because of how hard its creators are trying to sell him as a 21st-century renaissance man. Vijay can dance a bit, drive a car through various glass surfaces, and also decapitate a terrorist and then throw that guy’s disembodied head out a high window. Not to mention the scene where Vijay puts on a set of roller skates and literally skates in circles around a group of masked extremists.
Vijay’s all-for-all self-image is celebrated throughout, as in the chorus of a song that praises the chipmunk-cheeked hero as “thinner, meaner, stronger.” A final issue also describes Vijay as a “multi-faceted tiger with a multi-faceted avatar”. At this point in the film, Vijay flies back from Pakistan in a borrowed military jet, having independently massacred a terrorist camp.
In “Beast,” Vijay plays Veera, a former member of India’s Intelligence Agency Research and Analysis Wing with superhuman resources. Veera retired from RAW eleven years prior to the film’s present: in an introductory flashback, Veera unintentionally blows up a little girl with a rocket launcher. Look, there’s no way to make this plot sound any less crazy than it is, so let’s do a paragraph break.
Well, Veera is now very sensitive around children, which explains why he only springs back into action after he, now working for a bankrupt security company, hears the cries of distraught children after the terrorists from ISIS-style ISS take over Chennai’s East Coast Mall. . These terrorists are ruthless, as we can see from the way one of them backhands a lady and traumatizes a crying girl. The ISS terrorists are led by Saif, who spends most of the film wearing a latex mask that looks eerily like Anton LaVey, and his traitorous accomplice, the Indian government’s unnamed Home Minister (Shaji Chen), as we see in one of the first scenes.
The cartoonishly ruthless nature of the Saif boys is a given. Or maybe he just isn’t emphasized as often as Veera’s equally brutal countermeasures. There’s also nothing apologetic or conflicting about the violence in the film, which is effectively played for fun in a handful of action-intensive scenes. In an early scene, Veera also severs a masked villain’s arm at the elbow joint. And he stabs two ISS terrorists to death in front of a captive audience of mall hostages. Between murders, Veera plays dead to fake his second victim. “This is all normal,” he tells the hostages after stabbing the second guy in the head. The crowd seems to believe Veera as, in a later scene, a very nervous civilian is beaten up by the ISS terrorists, but refuses to rat Veera out.
Vijay isn’t nearly as inspiring in “Beast” as he recently was in last year’s “Master,” though neither film is disappointing. “Beast” only feels relatively minor because it’s chock-full of tangential showings for comedic supporting characters, like cranky negotiator Althaf or bumbling security company boss Dominic. Some of these characters barely appear in the film, such as Veera’s love interest Preethi and her persistent fiancé Ram.
Over time, the film’s routine narrative digressions also seem normal enough since, according to Yogi Babu’s sub-pot, it takes a village to support Chennai’s own John McClane. Fortunately, Vijay makes up for lost time during the film’s energetic action scenes, most of which are as polished and well-crafted as they need to be. Vijay’s dancing hasn’t improved much, but he seems more comfortable making faces worthy of a photo booth as he fires a big gun in slow motion.