Issue November 20, 2007

Film: Beowulf

Beowulf         3 Stars
Starring Brendan Gleeson, Anthony Hopkins, Angelina Jolie, Ray Winstone, Robin Wright Penn and John Malkovich. Directed by Robert Zemeckis. Released by Warner Bros. Pictures. Rated PG-13; 1:53.

“Beowulf” can’t fill out the oversized themes it tries on, but it beats out “300” for the most inventive hack-and-slash title of 2007. Director Robert Zemeckis turns to a staple of literature from high-school reading lists and adopts horror-movie tactics as an effort to jumpstart modern-action movie thrills.

    He succeeds. “300” is a gorgeous big-screen rendering of graphic novelist Frank Miller’s silhouetted drawings. But it also is a stillborn cinematic exercise of hollow speeches and abstract action that sucks wind when its chief aim is to knock the wind out of you. “Beowulf” may not give much weight to its computer-generated action, but Zemeckis’ restless-eye imagery brings creative bends and kinks that are absent from “300.”

    The Greek-tragedy themes in “Beowulf” barely stay afloat among the bloodbath of slain warriors. There’s also a lot of mead. Maybe brewpubs across America will rename their beers Wealthow after viewers revel in the surprisingly sexual romps that occur in the movie’s 6th-century Danish beer hall.

    King Hrothgar’s (Anthony Hopkins) bastard son, the touchingly pathetic, flesh-rotting beast Grendel (the Crispin Hellion Glover), crashes an orgy in the making, dicing drunkards in half. A warrior is summoned, and a warrior arrives: Beowulf, crusher of serpents’ skulls, slayer of mountaintop giants.

Grendel’s mother, a creature disturbingly implied through watery reflections, morphs into a naked Angelina Jolie. Being a male, Beowulf (Ray Winstone) thinks with his sword.

The movie uses seduction to prod issues of masculine pride and libido. More important, it gives an older, melancholy Beowulf a reason to fight a dragon. As Beowulf grasps for the beast’s heart, the dragon’s scaly exterior limits his arm’s reach. This is Zemeckis slyly acknowledging the audience’s sweet spot: hazy recognition of emotion, honest recognition of bloodlust.