24 February 2009

Beowulf (1999)

Sci Fi Beowulf Misses the Mark as Well
By Kristin Battestella

I had already seen the 1999 Science fiction update of Beowulf when I weighed the pros and cons of Beowulf and Grendel (2005) and 2007’s motion captured Beowulf. Like its compatriots, this Christopher Lambert vehicle has promise, but fails to achieve a proper dramatization of the longstanding epic poem. It is however, tough for me to not like a Christopher Lambert movie, so when the DVD became available on netflix, I gave Beowulf a second chance.

BeowulfHrothgar’s (Oliver Cotton) far flung outpost is being plagued by evil and deathly attacks from the monster Grendel (Vincent Hammond). He fears for his widowed daughter Kyra (Rhona Mitra) and the faithful Roland (Gotz Otto) as more men and women die. When the mysterious and equally deadly Beowulf (Christopher Lambert) passes through, he’s determined to defeat Grendel to stave off his own dark tendencies. His wounding of Grendel, however, incurs his mother’s (Layla Roberts) wrath.

This is probably the one time where I can’t say, ‘You know the story, yadda, yadda.’ For better or worse, those familiar with Beowulf and its numerous incarnations haven’t seen anything like this Beowulf before. Who was the genius that decided to make an alternative science fiction Beowulf? It’s not like the styles go hand in hand. If this were just any old warrior post apocalyptic B flick, Beowulf actually wouldn’t be bad. Who, who decided this far fetched plot was akin to the Old English tale? If writers Mark Leahy (Dungeons and Dragons) and the late David Chappe changed the names from Beowulf, Grendel, and Hrothgar; the viewer wouldn’t go, ‘Hmm….this is just like Beowulf!’ Remember ‘Shane! Come back, Shane!’ and Pale Rider’s infamous ‘Preacher! Come back, Preacher!’? Nope, no déjà vu here.

Director Graham Baker (Alien Nation, Leaving Lily) did succeed in making Beowulf a bit of a mystical persona, rather than a clean cut heroic figure, and it is neat that we meet Hrothgar’s court only to watch them picked off by Grendel one by one. Though great, the source poem is a bit boring with its nondescript nightly visits, so here it was actually the right decision to give Grendel a serial killer and predator type vibe. It’s a little slasher flick, yes, but this adds a fine touch of fun and suspense.

Of course, we’ve got those kinky bits here in Beowulf. Once again, Hrothgar put it where he shouldn’t have. It gives us some hot and sexy surreal scenes with Grendel’s mother, but I’m really tired of the weird monster sex bits that have been affixed to every film adaptation. Maybe Grendel doesn’t kill Hrothgar because he is an intelligent being, and wants a once gluttonous ruler to suffer through the deaths of all his people. A mourning hot and vengeful Mommy ends up learning the hard way, too. How about that people?

Outside of Druid, Day of the Wrath, and his foreign films; I have seen nearly every Christopher Lambert movie. Geek that I am, I own quite a few, too. He has the looks and talent I suppose, but Lambert is also the master of B flicks. His unique accent never changes no matter who he plays. If you don’t know who he is or don’t care for him, his voice and delivery are probably annoying. To me though, Lambert delivers insightful characters and fine action, along with a touch of humor. He’s easy to like and feel for. His Beowulf here is older, wiser, tormented with his own darkness. I suppose it has shades of Highlander, in fact; Beowulf thinks it his duty to fight evil and wander alone, loveless. I’ve seen Lambert stretch himself beyond this type in gritty pictures like Resurrection and Fortress, but the short, platinum hair here was not the way to differentiate.

Count ‘em folks we’ve got not one, but two token black characters! Charles Robinson (Home Improvement) as The Weapons Master is wasted with some very bad hip middle aged black guy with glasses dialogue. His nephew Will (Brent Lowe, Picket Fences ) is of course, the expositionary Weapons Assistant Black Guy who just happens to be afraid of Beowulf’s high tech gear. I’d like to applaud the effort in adding ethnic characters to such a heady Saxon story, but it’s not much of an effort. Why can we not have a an ensemble team with Beowulf, each from a different walk of life with a particular fighting expertise? Clearly Beowulf is supposed to be a mentor to Will, but his words of wisdom and one liners just fall flat. Bad quips and French accents don’t really help. No hip black kid would worship a platinum haired old French white guy. Really, people.

Gotz Ott (Tomorrow Never Dies) as Roland is also a complete joke as the jealous and unnecessary warrior competition. His bad costume doesn’t help, either. Breakout chica Rhona Mitra (Party of Five, The Practice, Boston Legal) looks alright as sassy and warrior daughter Kyra-and her costumes are functional as well as hot-but her delivery feels too high brow and RADA for such a low bar picture. Oliver Cotton’s (Sharpe’s Battle) Hrothgar could be a fine bit of casting, but surprisingly he’s barely there. His minimal role and the virtual exclusion of Wealthow is another nail in the ‘This isn’t really Beowulf’ coffin.

But oh my word the music in Beowulf is bad, even as B flicks go. A cheap synthesizer rift popping up right before any battle or bed scene is a dead give away that this film was made on the cheap. It’s not cool, old world, or futuristic in anyway. Remove this score and the film improves tenfold. Likewise the mix of courtly chain mail with modern metal swords is a miss. The chainsaw like blades look so phony and ridiculous. Again, I see the attempt at implying these folks use what they have to fight, but production was not up to task. Swords have been with us a long time people; if it ain’t broke don’t fix it! Capes and tight bodices and modern lingerie also don’t go with medieval leather and breastplates. Oiy.

The central fortified castle set of Beowulf is, thankfully, a fine piece of set dressing. The mix of ancient castle with poorly updated modern fortifications works here. It’s dark, has lots of candles, torches, stone, tight tunnels, and medieval bedrooms. The Romanian locations also feel authentic, but are under utilized. Beowulf’s weapons are a tad unbelievable, but a bit of cool at the same time. Lots of blades and crossbows to stick people near or far. The lucid effects for Grendel are a little slimey and sloppy, but the standard arm chop is the finest battle sequence of Beowulf. I must also admit, I like the look of Grendel’s mother. There’s not much to her except crimped hair and sheer netting for clothes, but I like that she is played for the most part as simply a sexy witchy woman. Is Grendel merely the manifestation of evil flesh, old cruelty, and hot adultery rather than a natural procreation? It’s a little something to think about. It takes more thought, unfortunately, then the stupid cgi bug Mommy turns into when she’s angry.

The subtitles don’t always match the spoken words-normally something I can’t stand-but the transcription goes a long way in understanding who is who and what is what in Beowulf. Believe it or not, there are features here, too. It’s a bad trailer and a short behind the scenes, but someone cared enough to package this DVD properly. If only they had taken the time when making the movie!

Beowulf gets a lot wrong. A far flung story that really shouldn’t have had anything to do with Beowulf, bad music, and some poor production values hinder the film. However, if you can get past these and appreciate Christopher Lambert, the looks that work, and the plots done right; Beowulf is okay. Not great, but a good late night guilty pleasure. Is Beowulf my beloved and long awaited Lord of the Ringsafied adaptation? Heck no, but it has some worth beyond its attempted retelling.

Harsh then to say that I wouldn’t spend more than ten bucks buying Beowulf. B fans or Lambert aficionados should check your local bargain bin or renting options. I can’t say this Beowulf is any better or worse than Beowulf and Grendel or its mocap pal Beowulf. Just now I’ve got three Beowulf movies from which to take the good bits. King Arthur, anyone?

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