Sturla Gunnarsson's Beowulf & Grendel asks a fairly interesting question: What if the ferocious beastie from the ancient poem was not a mindless brute or animalistic killing machine -- but instead was a big, hairy, terribly misunderstood giant who was just really pissed off at the guys who killed his father?
That's the question at the heart of this newest and most democratic look at the old-old-school epic adventure, and (barring a handful of really slow spots) it makes for a pretty diverting new movie. The cast is pretty strong, the look of the film is surprisingly effective, and the story moves along at a fairly appreciable clip ... for the most part, anyway.
Gerard Butler stars as legendary hero Beowulf, the man who shows up to help drunken King Hrothgar (Stellan Skarsgard) rid his countryside of a ravenous, murdering ... something. "Troll" is what the bloodthirsty Grendel is most commonly referred to, but as a strangely haunting prologue informs us, Grendel might just have a pretty good reason for his murderous ways.
Toss into the equation a saucy young witch, a babbling priest, and some truly stunning Icelandic cinematography, and you've got a surprisingly watchable flick on your hands -- even if a few of the performances skirt dangerously close to Uwe Boll territory. (Sarah Polley's witch character almost comes off as parody, and there's a weird amount of anachronistic profanity laced throughout the movie.)
But it's pretty clear that this particular version of Beowulf & Grendel was crafted with a half-decent budget and a lot of good intentions. It's not a dry and chat-heavy period piece, and it's not a low-budget hack-'em-up action-fest. More like a little from both columns, which means that if you normally dig this sort of olde-school adventure tale, you'll probably find enough to enjoy here. Purists, however, should stay far away, as Gunnarsson takes more than a few liberties with the source material.
Video: Anchor Bay delivers the limited release/festival flick in a generally solid anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1) transfer. The (rare) colors look fine and the landscapes are lovely, but darker shades tend to blur together on occasion.
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1. Solid audio presentation. (English captions, not subtitles.)
Par for the Anchor Bay course, the platter comes with an impressive array of extra goodies:
Director Sturla Gunnarsson, screenwriter Andrew Berzins, first assistant director Wendy Ord, and costume designer Debra Hanson provide an amiable audio commentary that focuses on the hazards of A) taking new liberties with such a well-known tale, and B) shooting a movie in the harsh climates of Iceland.
Wrath of Gods is a ten-minute collection of excerpts from a feature-length documentary film about the making of Beowulf & Grendel. Also included are 26 minutes of cast & crew interviews (Butler, Gunnarsson, Skarsgard, Berzins and producer Paul Stephens), a handful of costume artwork and sketches, a storyboard comparison, and about nine minutes of deleted scenes.
Rounding out the disc are some trailers for Beowulf & Grendel, Heartstopper, and Dan Aykroyd: Unplugged on UFOs.
I expected the flick to be either "low-budget silly" or "film festival stuffy," and was surprised to realize it was actually a fairly compelling mixture of both. If you're looking for a film that "faithfully" tells the Beowulf tale, you should probably look elsewhere, but if you're game for a strange and beautiful-looking new version of the story, you can safely give this one a rental.