Ray Winstone in Beowulf (2007)


(director: Robert Zemeckis; screenwriters: Neil Gaiman/Roger Avary; cinematographer: Robert Presley; editor: Jeremiah O’Driscoll; music: Alan Silvestri; cast: Ray Winstone (Beowulf), Anthony Hopkins (King Hrothgar), Brendan Gleeson (Wiglaf), Crispin Glover (Grendel), Robin Wright-Penn (Queen Wealthow), Angelina Jolie (Grendel’s mother), Alison Lohman (Ursula-voice); Runtime: 115; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Steve Starkey/Robert Zemeckis/Jack Rapke; Paramount Pictures; 2007)

“In the tradition of ribald Hollywood blockbusters.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Robert Zemeckis (“Cast Away”/”Who Framed Roger Rabbit”/”Forrest Gump”) directs this gothic fantasy thriller that’s based on an Old English anonymous epic poem (from the 8th-century, but the story is set two centuries earlier in 507 A.D.) sometimes studied in high school English classes. It’s written in a dumbed down style by British-born graphic novelist Neil Gaiman (“Stardust”) and Roger Avary (“Pulp Fiction”), who make the poem accessible in the tradition of ribald Hollywood blockbusters and by use of modern-day technology. What they throw overboard is the poetry, thereby leaving the source poem hollow and the film with an empty story like most other bloodletting action pics showing at your local multiplex. Though the film is a boon for techies as it’s done partly in animation and uses the 3D IMAX (for the few hundred theaters that have that technology) and also might please those cheap thrill seekers ogling at the curvaceous water demon temptress played by Angelina Jolie in the buff (at least we are given that impression by the technology) with only some gold paint covering her bod (Goldfinger style) when she rises from the vaporous waters at about the hour and fifteen minute mark of the film, where in this campy presentation she’s wearing high heels, has her titties jutting out and is sporting a devil’s tail as she approaches the lusting hero. For the techies, there’s something to swoon over the way Zemeckis serves up the same motion capture technique he used before on “The Polar Express” – in which the actors who provide the voice also wear clothes with electronic sensors that “capture” their performances, which are combined with computer-generated background and props and do all sorts of digital things that supposedly make one jump for joy to be living in the 21st century.

The plot in a nutshell has the flawed egotistical hero, a boastful and lying young Geat warrior named Beowulf (Ray Winstone), digitally transformed into a he-man with a muscle-bound bod, promised the reward of a golden horn for his services of killing a dreaded monster who is killing off the king’s best warriors and making the king’s life a drag. Beowulf makes his grand entrance emerging out of a raging storm in a Viking ship where he precedes to the glorified drinking hall in the palace to bravely fight in the nude and without a weapon the raging hideous looking deformed giant monster Grendel (Crispin Glover), who is ten feet tall and dripping from puss, who is pissed off at all the merrymaking in the hall and is swatting the king’s warriors away as if they were flies. The Danish kingdom is ruled by the old corpulent pagan king Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins) and his lovely sweetie pie queen Wealthow (Robin Wright Penn). When Beowulf lops off the monster’s arm, the sucka goes crawling back to his mama’s lair in the moors bawling like a baby. Grendel’s evil mom (Angelina Jolie) seeks revenge for her son being harmed by stringing up all of Beowulf’s men in the hall except for his loyal lieutenant, Wiglaf (Brendan Gleeson). The king now urges Beowulf to finish the mission and kill the mother as well as the son. Unferth (John Malkovich), the king’s thane advisor, who first doubted that Beowulf had enough balls for the job is now impressed with his resolve and presents him with an ancestral sword. When Beowulf goes after Grendel’s old lady in her grotto by an eerie foggy lake, he bites off Grendel’s head and is then seduced by his mom to do some fornication like she did with King Hrothgar many years ago and she strikes a Faustian bargain with Beowulf that if he leaves with her the golden horn she will cast a spell that will allow him to ascend to the throne of Denmark and become the richest and most powerful king. Beowulf, who is prone to shout out in celebration of himself from time to time that ‘I am Beowulf!’, lies to everyone upon his return from the moors and hints he killed Grendel’s mom and brings the king Grendel’s head as proof of his death. Beowulf becomes king and takes Wealthow as his queen when soon after Hrothgar mysteriously falls down a hole to his death. Some 50 years later Beowulf has to slay a giant dragon and once again confront Grendel’s mom, as history repeats itself.

It’s a crass animated boys’ adventure tale, taking no chances of leaving anything to the imagination. It’s so superficial that it easily fits into today’s pop culture scene of keeping things light, undemanding and colorful; yet, it surprisingly has a little heft as it offers a few mild insights into a twisted Oedipal based mother-son issue, a lust for power syndrome that continually plagues the world and keeps it warlike, frets about monster slayers turning into monsters over time, the ill effects of blindly worshiping heroes, that we are always paying for the sins of our fathers, that the Devil makes us do bad things and women are the main cause of our woes because they are evil. But this is not meant as a message film or is it really interested in drawing anything poetical from the poem, what it wants to do is be entertaining, slightly satirical in its postmodern humor and be pretty to look at–things it more or less got right. If you can accept it on those limited terms, you probably got more out of it than this viewer did. In 1999, the poet Seamus Heaney did a modern translation of the Anglo-Saxon “Beowulf” poem and called it “one of the foundation works of poetry in English.” You would have to possess quite an imagination to get that from seeing this film.