If nothing else, give the makers of Beowulf & Grendel high marks for boldness and for a certain playful irreverence. It's a good bet that today's moviegoers 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 might be 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."
Thus does the oldest surviving epic of Anglo-Saxon verse collide with postmodern 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 with 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 après-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 himself (ex-Phantom of the Opera star Gerard Butler) as a man with a conscience, rather than a stone killer. Sworn to help the Danish king, Hrothgar (Stellan Skarsgård), and do in the slavering beast Grendel, our hero lands on the chill, stone-scarred isle of Zealand with a dozen horny, boozing Geat warriors under his command and pure fire in his eye. 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.
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.