Beowulf (1999)

JULY 29, 2011


Apparently assuming that Mortal Kombat's box office success was due to the techno music and a white-haired Christopher Lambert, producer Lawrence Kasanoff brought these elements into what was shockingly the first feature version of Beowulf, which - to be fair - more or less stuck to the original story. Unfortunately these things, and several others, combine to make a pretty bad movie regardless of its respect to the source material.

For starters I couldn't tell if it was supposed to be the future or the past. There are several anachronisms, both technical (nice modern eyeglasses!) and superficial (few are the historical epics that have a hip comic relief black guy - not saying they definitely didn't exist, but they definitely don't fit the mood/tone/etc), but the castle itself looks like some wizard tower in long shots, and I swear there's a loudspeaker in there too. Also, again, the techno music. I'm not going to lie, I really don't like techno at all, but it can work if appropriate to the movie - Swordfish comes to mind, for example. But not only does it not belong in this setting, it doesn't even fit the on-screen action! Early on, Lambert enters the castle and just sort of looks around, but the music suggests some high octane action sequence is occurring. The occasional tracks with vocals are even more ill-fitting; an unnecessary distraction that just makes a bad movie worse.

Granted, even the best James Horner (dismiss him for Titanic or whatever all you want; the man scored Aliens and Braveheart - respect) or John Williams score wouldn't save this movie, but at least it would be less of an obnoxious viewing experience and merely a boring one. This movie actually cost MORE than Mortal Kombat but is shockingly low on fighting and violence; I have no idea where the dough went but it's certainly not on-screen. None of the actors save Lambert could have cost much to hire (Rhona Mitra and Patricia Velasquez being the only other ones I recognize, but this was one of the first film roles for both), and pretty much the entire movie takes place inside the rather bland (and hardly expansive) castle.

But more problematic is the aforementioned lack of action. Lambert is playing the title character, obviously, but barely ever really shows the supposedly legendary fighting skills, nor does anything nearly as badass as the 2007 Zemeckis version, who tears off his own arm in order to save the day. Mostly all he does is dive and flip around and occasionally use a grappling hook. Cool. And we don't get to see Grendel doing a hell of a lot either; for a monster that has this entire castle fearing their lives 24/7, he's pretty slow and unambitious. At one point the movie turns into a slasher movie, as he slowly stalks and even toys with a single guy before killing him. We're told over and over that he's unstoppable and all that - why the hell doesn't he just wipe the whole place out?

Well, he does, at one point, but we don't even see it! Actually it might be his mother that does it, it's vague (that's what happens when major plot points occur off-screen). At this point of the story we're supposed to believe that Grendel is dead and his mother is looking for revenge, but then Grendel reappears when Lambert and Mitra (the only survivors at this point) enter the main hall and see everyone dead, including Roland. Roland is played by a guy who looks a bit like Everett McGill, and is set up as a potential rival/eventual trusted comrade to Beowulf, but he dies off-screen along with everyone else. I mean, fine, if your 20 million budget wasn't enough to show a bunch of random Romanian extras being slaughtered in close-up by a latex tentacle, fine, but you can at least offer us a death scene for our 3rd lead.

On the other hand, the less we see Grendel, the better. In the trailer and in some shots he looks normal, but they added a bunch of ridiculous filters over it, including a sort of purple cloud that makes no sense whatsoever. It's actually not a badly designed monster, and some of the CGI work is decent (much better than the mother/Grendel hybrid thing that appears at the end, which actually does the unthinkable and makes the Scorpion King in Mummy Returns look good in comparison), but these "bonus" elements just make it laughable. He also talks at one point - I don't know who ever came up with the idea that an otherwise silent killer uttering a single word would be cool, but he's a moron. The only successful example I can think of would be Hills Run Red, which worked because he sounded so normal (and spoke a complete sentence). But this single, strained, monster-voiced word nonsense has got to go.

As for Lambert, well, you know what to expect. He's not a particularly good actor, but he's got a presence; like a more everyman version of Schwarzenegger. I think he's at his best when playing "normal" characters - Fortress and Gunmen come to mind. Obviously Highlander is his claim to fame, and he's fine there because part of the character is a guy trying to blend in, so it works. But here, when he's supposed to be this legendary warrior, it doesn't quite have the right effect (especially with that ridiculous dyed hair). Also, for his fans - he doesn't do the laugh until the very last shot of the movie, which is a bummer since any respectable audience member will be laughing quite frequently.

As with Prophecy 5, Echo Bridge goofed and inserted the original Dimension disc inside their new packaging (you can tell because a 2011 release from another company probably wouldn't have a teaser for Scream 3 at the top of the disc). Of course, this just means a (presumably) better transfer and a few bonus features. One is the trailer, which hilariously copies Kombat even more by giving the movie a medallion like logo (with a profile of Lambert carved into it!) and saying "in the future..." even though the movie seems to exist in the past with a bunch of anachronisms (none of them weaponry - I'm guessing a few shotguns probably could have taken down the Grendel, and if this was really the future they would have had some, no?). Then there's a two minute, wordless featurette that's merely a bunch of random behind the scenes footage set to that goddamn techno score. So, very un-special features, but still more than you'll get with the actual Echo Bridge disc, which will give you a cheesy menu and possibly a washed out transfer instead.

So there you have it - the R rated, live action version of Beowulf that is somehow less scary, less gory, and less exciting than its PG-13 animated counterpart. It should be noted that director Graham Baker and screenwriter Mark Leahy haven't made a film since, and Krasanoff now produces Lego movies while pursuing his endless quest to get another Kombat movie made. As for Lambert, he is getting another chance at big-screen glory with a plum role in Ghost Rider 2, a movie I am actually excited for despite not thinking much of the original OR anything Neveldine/Taylor have done post-Crank. I think them paired with Cage and what appears to be carte blanche (and an R rating?) from the studio can produce magic, and Lambert - well, he'll certainly be having a grand ol' time.

What say you?

1 comment:

  1. Very good review. Trailer makes it look ok though! Every film back then seemed to have a techno soundtrack, Blade possibly being the best!

    Michael :)


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