BEOWULF & GRENDEL (Sturla Gunnarsson). 103 minutes. Opens Friday (March 10). For venues and times, see Movies, page 107. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
Raise a glass of mead and let out a big loud belch of satisfaction. Sturla Gunnarsson 's salty, crude version of Beowulf arrives on screens a year before Robert Zemeckis's no doubt more genteel version.
Filmed in Iceland, Gunnarsson's ancestral country, the epic story - which clocks in, thankfully, at a very un-epic 103 minutes - recounts the first half of the ninth-century Anglo-Saxon saga about the capture and death of the murderous titular troll.
Gunnarsson and screenwriter Andrew Rai Berzins humanize the story and add elements of the serial-killer structure to help build interest.
After seeing his father killed by King Hrothgar ( Stellan Skarsgård ), Grendel ( Ingvar E. Sigurdsson ) grows up and in a series of nasty nighttime visits seeks vengeance on the king's court. When the hero, Beowulf ( Gerard Butler ), sails in to help out the now-demoralized Hrothgar, he finds himself caught in an ethically ambiguous battle.
The seek-and-capture story is strong enough on its own, but the film gains texture and complexity with interwoven themes like the encroachment of Christianity and ideas about storytelling.
There are a few false notes: the score is derivative, and Grendel's grunts make him sound like Bam Bam imitating Frankenstein's monster.
But the actors are likeable, including the no-nonsense Butler, whose Scottish accent brings home the story's down-to-earth nature. The great Skarsgård, meanwhile, bloated and pale, makes his self-destructive king into the personification of every hangover you've ever had.
The biggest attraction, though, is the craggy, moody landscape, which Gunnarsson captures without a trace of romantic idealization. It's worth seeing on a great big screen - it'll lose a lot on DVD.