Beowulf & Grendel

Category: Beowulf & Grendel Reviews | Posted by: admin
Article Date: July 7, 2006 | Publication: New York Times | Author: MANOHLA DARGIS
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Opens today in Manhattan
Directed by Sturla Gunnarsson
102 minutes

A more accurate title of this conceptually anemic if prettily mounted take on the Scandinavian epic might be ''Beowulf & the Vixen.'' Directed by Sturla Gunnarsson, a Canadian resident of Icelandic birth, this English-language version of the poem boils the classic text down into a generic action flick, complete with sweeping Icelandic vistas, clanging fights, galloping horses, a chiseled hero and a witchy woman who keeps her front door unlocked for both the good guy and the bad. Every so often a severed head lazily rolls across the frame, though alas not often enough.

Written at some point between the seventh and 10th centuries, the original ''Beowulf'' tells the story of a warrior who saves the Danes from the great monster Grendel and the creature's vengeful mother before succumbing, decades later, to a dragon. Grendel is dead about a quarter of the way into the narrative, but perhaps because he has the makings of such a juicy threat he remains alive for most of the film. Keeping the monster alive also dovetails with the action-film formula in which a hero (the dashing Gerard Butler as Beowulf) battles a villain (the imposing Ingvar Sigurdsson as Grendel) while simultaneously learning some inevitable life lessons on his way to the deadly climax.

The chief lesson imparted here by the screenwriter Andrew Rai Berzins is that this Grendel is not a mythic force with a direct line back to Cain, but akin to a persecuted, disappointingly human (if hairy) ethnic minority. Grendel kills not because he is a demon, the necessary embodiment of all that humans fear, but because when he was just a small fleck of blond fuzz, a Dane king (Stellan Skarsgard, beet-red and yowling) murdered his father. With all the mystery and meaning sucked from the story, the filmmakers do what filmmakers often do when faced with their own lack of imagination: they toss a little sex in with the violence, which here means that poor Sarah Polley, as the friendly neighborhood witch, has to bat her lashes at two opponents better suited to batting each other.

''Beowulf & Grendel'' is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). Adult language, rolling heads and miscellaneous violence.