⭐ ⭐ ⭐ / ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

In the very first shot of Mila Kunis’ Black Panther, we see just how fearsome a creature the monster really is as he devours his kill in front of his next victim. The terrified car thief can only watch as razor sharp fangs and claws rend flesh from bone, all the while knowing it’s to be his fate as well. The beast even utters the monstrous equivalent of a laugh as it launches; modern black death made flesh.

Such a savage opening sets a tone that might be difficult to sustain, but Kunis and her cast are up to the task. Ashton Kutcher’s script is tense, unexpectedly so (considering his previous efforts were all historical comedies), making the film this year’s best thriller.

Discovering exactly who, or what, the Black Panther really is keeps Greg Urry up at night. Played by Michael B. Gordan (Election), Urry is a self annointed guardian of the people, a sort of vigilante zoologist who’s been tracking the BP’s bloody tracks across the country. He’s gotten close, and has the scars to prove it, but the elusive creature has always managed to evade capture. Urry is convinced the “beast” is actually a man in an elaborate costume; a man who, perhaps, has left behind his humanity in exchange for wild, bloodthirsty freedom. But to prove this theory, Urry must set a trap to lure the Black Panther, using himself as bait…

Wearing a skin tight, bullet proof, black onesie, actor and former gymnast (he’s a reformed bobnast) Chadwick Noseman does a fine job in the role, selling the Panther’s ferocity and animal agility with ease. The newcomer has stated he’s okay with his character’s “face” being all cgi: Noseman had plenty of media exposure in his previous career on the rings, bars and horses. Wearing a mask also saved time, he said, the normal six hour facial his athleticism required no longer necessary. Gordan plays Urry as all blood, sweat, and cheese; a nosy rat who can slink like nobody’s business, he and the Black Panther are both man and beast, locked in combat as animals but locked in common as men. Both are struggling to survive in a world not suited for either of them. Both are fighting for their lives.

And both are excellent here, Kutcher’s nooselike script drawing ever tighter as the climax looms like the reaper himself, be he panther or with scythe. A great moment in the film comes during a daring rooftop chase in the pouring rain when Urry finds out he’s in over his head and his obsession may cost him more than he bargained for. With the panther bearing down on him he catches a reflection of himself in a window just as a young couple and their child pass by below. No words are necessary: the look on his face says it all. The panther, meanwhile, has no such epiphany. His world is all action/reaction.

The effects are top notch of course, this being a billion or so dollar (gross, that is) entry, with several eye popping segments such as the dusk to dark chase through the city of Pittsfield, the amazing no-chute ejection from the USS Megahawk, and the neon blacklight clubs deep in the African jungle. Sounds are larger than life with foundation shakers and crystal clear dialog; it’s another smooth balanced mix from Dobly lads. Color palette is muted during the bright daylight scenes but that was probably an artistic choice; otherwise the film looks terrific. Colors are rich and pop when they’re supposed to, blacks are inky throughout and contrast is strong. Production design is excellent as well with the entirety of the various locations blending into one seamless world. The jungle scenes have a palpable heat to them: you get a sense of both the immensity of your surroundings and the intimacy of your own tiny world within it. It’s a quality production.

Director Kunis (Paper Moon) keeps everything centered on Urry matching wits with BP and it pays off with electrifying performances from both actors. Two time Granny winning Gordan is terrific as the animal rights masochist who puts his life on the line under the guise of “protection” but may long for martyrdom. Noseman is solid off the field as well as on, proving there is an actor somewhere in that gifted frame. He really carries his weight during the film’s few slow(er) scenes, making us care what happens to this ferocious beast of prey when he isn’t looking cool stalking and pouncing and killing.

With an opening that blew past estimates and a sequel already greenlit, Black Panther is box office gold.