If nothing else, give the makers of Beowulf & Grendel high marks for boldness and a certain playful irreverence. It's a good bet that today's movie-goers have all the respect in the world for eighth-century poetry, Norse legend and the tenets of early Christianity, but the real attraction of the film is best summed up in the casual observation of an iron-helmeted warrior who, in this version of the tale, has been sent on a search-and-destroy mission against the hero's giant adversary, Grendel. "I tell ya," he says, "this troll must be one tough prick."
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Thus does the oldest surviving epic of Anglo-Saxon verse collide with post-modern punk sensibility, not just in the name of contemporary "relevance," but for the sake of wit. Granted, not everything in Icelandic-born director Sturla Gunnarsson's take on Beowulf is wiseguy work, but it sure looks like Gunnarsson and his Canadian screenwriter, Andrew Rai Berzins, are as familiar with Monty Python as Teutonic lit. How else to explain that the fearsome Grendel (played by Icelandic actor Ingvar Sigurdsson) parades around all movie long in the kind of big furry boots favored by slinky supermodels in the aprs-ski bars of Aspen, and that the entire production, shot in the more barren and forbidding reaches of the director's native land, looks like a cross between a WWE grudge match and the Sturgis biker rally? Gunnarsson and Berzins have dispensed with the original Beowulf's fire-breathing dragon, but they don't really need him: The motley, bearded collection of Geats and Danes and sub-oceanic demons who do ferocious battle here would scare the inmates in maximum security half to death. (Detail: To wind down after a tough day, Grendel goes bowling -- using the bleached skull of a slain enemy for a ball.)
On the other hand, this frequently thrilling entertainment also grapples artfully with a variety of moral and historical issues: things like duty, honor and country. Obviously no slave to tradition, Gunnarsson departs radically from his source by painting Beowulf (ex-Phantom of the Opera Gerard Butler) as a man with a conscience rather than a stone killer. Sworn to help the Danish king, Hrothgar (Stellan Skarsgrd) and do in the slavering beast Grendel, our hero lands on the chill, stone-scarred isle of Zealand with pure fire in his eye and a dozen horny, boozing Geat warriors under his command. But as the occupying force spends more time away from home and this nouveau Beowulf learns more about the real motives of the monster and Hrothgar's double-dealing, he begins to question his own resolve to a degree that the epic poem's anonymous author could scarcely have imagined. Sympathy for the devil breeds a reluctant soldier.
Does some sneaky political metaphor lurk below the surface here? It's best to decide that for yourself -- but it probably wouldn't hurt if somebody screened this thing for Donald Rumsfeld and the joint chiefs down at the Pentagon. As it is, there's enough heavy swordplay, torso-crushing and decapitation to furnish half a dozen low-budget slasher flicks, and the script also supplies a redheaded witch named Selma (The Weight of Water's Sarah Polley), who can foretell the future and who's slept with almost everyone we meet -- no matter how grotesquely unshaven or desperately in need of Speed Stick. Hey, she's even gotten it on with Grendel, in one of the big guy's more romantic moments. Selma, of course, arouses the disapproval of a visiting Catholic priest, who seeks to replace all the multiple gods of the Norse warriors with one relatively new fellow named Jesus. Happily, that provokes an impertinent question from one mead-soaked, mace-wielding drunk in a ratty fur parka: "Christ?" the man says. "Heard of him. He ever had much luck with trolls?"
For those who've never had much luck plowing through Beowulf's 3,200 lines of alliterative Old English, Gunnarsson's movie version might be a useful alternative -- as long as you're not dead-set on linguistic purity or the parable about honor and duty that defines the original. It's good, bloody fun that stirs the intellect whenever it damn well feels like it, and as a swashbuckler, the dead-game Butler outswings just about everyone we saw recently in Troy or Kingdom of Heaven or Tristan & Isolde. Those overblown historical epics played just as loosely with history as this one does, but they didn't boast a third of its bawdy, sly humor.