Beowulf (1999)

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By John G. Nettles

A Masterpiece of Welding

This review cost about $20,000, just so you know. That’s how much it cost to earn a Master’s degree in English with a concentration in medieval and Renaissance lit, and this is likely to be the only instance in which I actually use my familiarity with the text of Beowulf. Unfortunately, I’m using said familiarity to report on the recent straight-to-video film starring Christopher Lambert, so I may now consider the money officially wasted.

Even if you haven’t translated all 3000+ lines of Beowulf from the original Old English, as I have, most of you will have undoubtedly slogged through some version of the 6th-century epic poem about how the heroic prince of the Geats journeys into Denmark to do battle with the monster Grendel, who preys nightly on the inhabitants of King Hrothgar’s mead-hall. They wrestle, locked in titanic battle, until Beowulf rips the beast’s arm from its socket and it flees into the night to die. Then the hero must defeat Grendel’s vengeful mother, descending into her underworld lair and emerging bloody but victorious. The poem then jumps forward to Beowulf’s last adventure where, as king, he gives his life in battle with a ferocious dragon.

The Beowulf summarized above is the first epic native to the English-speaking world and perhaps second only to the Arthur saga in its greatness. Graham Baker’s Beowulf, on the other hand, is just a very stupid movie. It’s like one of those pictures they used to crank out in the ‘80s—you know, the sword-and-sorcery epic where everyone uses industrial technology, yet fights with swords, and there’s no running water, but the women all seem to have access to blow-dryers? You remember Krull, right? Or anything starring Miles O’Keeffe?

The 2000 version of Beowulf opens under a perpetually overcast sky as a ring of warriors sits encamped around a structure that appears to be half-castle, half-factory—that is, it belches smoke into the sky and has some huge mechanism that opens and closes like a jagged fist, but for no discernable reason. A nubile young girl (they’re all nubile here) runs fleeing in terror from the edifice, only to be snagged by the marauders and strapped to a board beneath a giant straight-razor. Enter Our Hero, hair bleached, wearing Mad Max’s leathers (he looks kinda like Rob Halford from Judas Priest, actually), and bearing an astonishing number of impressive forged-iron weapons that together would weigh roughly two hundred pounds but don’t seem to impede his stunt double in the least from flipping around like Mary Lou Retton on uncut crank. He saves the girl and carries her to the stronghold, where she immediately breaks away again and allows herself to be killed. Evidently there’s something inside the castle worse than death—the rest of the movie.

The reason the unhappy campers don’t allow people to leave is fear of the implacable evil that exists within the stronghold, a monster that preys on the castle’s inhabitants nightly, dropping from the shadows and snacking to his black heart’s content. This would be Grendel, rendered in wavy translucent CGI that just screams Predator, ripping big bloody holes through everyone in his path except the lord of the manor, Hrothgar (played by Oliver Cotton and who, incidentally, bears the last of the names even remotely related to the original epic). It is Grendel’s presence that has drawn Beowulf—some pseudo-mystical twaddle about Grendel mirroring the evil in Beowulf’s soul, or something like that—but the presence of Hrothgar’s hot daughter Kyra (Rhona Mitra) and her pneumatic charms is an incentive to stay as well.

We’re still firmly in a mid-eighties imaginary here: mystical hero, old man in trouble, old man’s sexy daughter who favors outfits that wouldn’t hold up beyond a good sneeze offering herself up to mystical hero… what are we missing? Oh yeah. Hot daughter’s ineffectual suitor, and hero’s plucky sidekick. Check both of those items off too. The suitor is Roland (Gotz Otto, a German actor playing a character with a French name who’s supposed to be Danish), the captain of the guard with a truly glorious cape. Naturally Beowulf kicks his ass, but it’s a good-natured ass-kicking, since Roland’s needed in the fight—no need to tell you how Roland ends up. The hero’s plucky sidekick is Will the Assistant Weapons Master (Brent Jefferson Lowe, an African-American actor playing a character with an English name who’s also supposed to be Danish), who is moderately likeable, if more than a little clumsy—no need to tell you how he ends up, either.

Anything else? Right—rocking soundtrack and tits. Every fight scene is accompanied by some generic techno-rave noise that has no business being there. The soundtrack isn’t quite as annoying as the Alan Parsons music all over Ladyhawke, but it’s certainly in that neighborhood. As for the tits, they are amply supplied by Layla Roberts, who plays Grendel’s mother and appears nightly in Hrothgar’s wet dreams wearing some sort of macrame shift that looks like she was picked up by a shrimp trawler.

All that remains is the requisite cool weaponry, and here is where Beowulf really takes off. Oh, the welding in this picture! It’s exquisite! Among the junkyard Beowulf has strapped to his body is a sword with a bicycle hand-brake, another sword that can launch sharpened machine parts, a gauntlet that shoots steel darts without any sort of propellant, a three-headed mace, and twin pickaxes that double as grappling hooks. The soldiers are resplendent in their armor constructed from auto parts, and the castle has more giant gears and knobs than the set of Metropolis. Apparently Hrothgar rules over a society of nothing but blacksmiths and arc-welders, which prompts the question of why Grendel enjoys eating them so much. He undoubtedly likes his toast burnt too.

It takes all of this hardware and more for Beowulf to face off against Grendel, whereas in the original epic, the hero takes the beastie on with his bare hands. Why? Because Beowulf is supposed to be a giant! Without changing a scene, this poem could have been a tailor-made treatment for a Schwarzenegger flick. Hell, it could even have worked with Dolph Lundgren, fer Chrissakes. Instead we get Christopher Lambert, who has just never been that imposing, even in Highlander. For all his heroic swaggering, at no time is it possible to believe that Lambert is either as strong or as agile as his stunt double, much less as some godlike monster-slayer. When Kyra goes for him, all we can conclude is that it’s gotta be the hair.

So that’s it. $20,000 spent to review Christopher Lambert in a very long heavy-metal video with the wrong music and nothing to recommend it but the welding. I can only pray that neither my Old English lit professor nor my parents ever stumble upon this review—I’ll have a lot of explaining to do.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/beowolf/