Two elements of "Beowulf & Grendel" make a mixed-up and unbalanced picture nearly worthwhile. One is Iceland. Shooting in various, epically craggy corners of a country that hasn't been location-scouted to death, the film's makers resort to not a single computer-generated effect in this pictorially imposing retelling of the heroic tale. (Scholars date "Beowulf" to somewhere between the seventh and 11th centuries.)
The other element you never fully see. It's a bone-white sea creature -- Death, glimpsed only as a forearm with claw-like digits -- which appears now and then in Icelandic-born Canadian director Sturla Gunnarsson's picture. As that ashen-looking arm grabs for a victim, it's horrible -- and sort of beautiful.
Gunnarsson likes it like that but only rarely achieves both extremes. This gristle-intensive R-rated version of "Beowulf" travels a predictable revisionist route. No longer an evil descendant of Cain -- the poem's tensions between pagan Norse legend and Christianity have been heightened in the screenplay -- Grendel becomes a victim of blind, brutish racism.
The time is AD 500. Early we see Hrothgar (Stellan Skarsgard), king of the Danes, murdering the father of the hairy blond troll-child, Grendel. (Grown up, bitter and even more hairy, he's played by Ingvar Sigurdsson.) Screenwriter Andrew Rai Berzins is super-intent on placing our sympathies with the misunderstood loner. When a title card announces "From the sea, a hero," heralding the arrival of monster-slayer Beowulf, the audience thinks: Haven't we already met our hero? The anguished troll with the considerable forehead, righteously counter-terrorizing his tormentors?
The film, shot in English, piles up Norsemen's bones along with a dizzying variety of accents. Beowulf is played by Scottish actor Gerard Butler. Skarsgard is Swedish. Sigurdsson is Icelandic. Sarah Polley, surprisingly stilted as the witchy witch named Selma, hails from Canada. While cinema may be a visual medium foremost, it's also an aural one, and the cacophony of dialects sounds not so much "universal" or interestingly multicultural as simply all over the map.
'Beowulf & Grendel'
MPAA rating: R for violence, language and some sexuality
An Equinoxe Films release. Director Sturla Gunnarsson. Screenplay by Andrew Rai Berzins, based on the epic poem. Producers Gunnarsson, Paul Stephens, Eric Jordan, Jason Piette, Michael Lionello Cowan, Anna Maria Karlsdottir. Director of photography Jan Kiesser. Editor Jeff Warren. Production design Arni Pall Johannsson. Music Hilmar Orn Hilmarsson. Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes.
Exclusively at Landmark's Westside Pavilion Cinemas, 10800 Pico Blvd. (310) 281-8223.