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Today’s moviegoers may have all the respect in the world for Anglo-Saxon poetry, Norse legend, and the tenets of early Christianity, but the real attraction of Beowulf & Grendel might be summed up in the observation of an iron-helmeted Geat warrior in hot pursuit of the giant villain: “I tell ya,” he says. “This troll must be one tough prick.” Thus does Beowulf collide with postmodern punk sensibility.
Not everything in Iceland-born director Sturla Gunnarsson’s irreverent take on Beowulf is wise-guy work, but it sure looks like Gunnarsson and his Canadian screenwriter, Andrew Rai Berzins, are as familiar with Monty Python as with Teutonic lit. How else to explain that the fearsome Grendel (Ingvar Sigurdsson) parades around in the kind of big furry boots favored by slinky supermodels in the aprés-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 the suboceanic demons who do ferocious battle here would scare the inmates in maximum security half to death. The filmmakers also grapple artfully with a variety of moral and historical issues: Their nouveau Beowulf (Gerard Butler) is a man with a conscience, not a stone killer, and their Grendel is a monster wronged.
For those who’ve never had much luck plowing through Beowulf‘s 3,200 lines of alliterative Old English, Gunnarsson’s 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 feels like it, and as a swashbuckler, the dead-game Butler outswings just about anyone 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.