Beowulf (1999)



Graham Baker

Christopher Lambert (Beowulf), Rhona Mitra (Kyra), Olvier Cotton (Hrothgar), Gotz Otto (Roland), Vincent Hammond (Grendel), Layla Roberts (Grendel’s Mother)

Unknown (Likely War)

“Torn from a legend whose roots are buried in the mists of time, Beowulf is half man – half god. Living in the techno-futile world world of the future, a medieval land where technology’s secretes are locked away in a mute past, Beowulf fights his way through a besieging army and into a mysterious, ominous castle on the edge of nowhere to face an evil within… a beastly spawn of man and demon named Grendel. Now he must fight to the death – in order to quell the raging violence hidden in his own bedeviled soul!” – Synopsis from the back of the DVD box.

Beowulf is an epic poem about a hero named Beowulf who kills a monster, kills the monster’s mother, grows old and kills a dragon and then dies.  It has been adapted into a movie numerous times, many excising the third chapter entirely and all of them giving a different interpretation of the events, often humanizing or giving motivation to Grendel and his mother, changing the setting, or giving Beowulf a different origin.   Strangely nobody has had the idea to just adapt Beowulf as it is into an epic fantasy film rather than to put a new spin on it.

1999’s Beowulf was an attempt to convert the narrative to a post-apocalyptic sci-fi action/horror mash-up.  We open on Hrothgar (Oliver Cotton) and his men trudging through the castle as Grendel kills some armed men.  Grendel is actually a very good looking man-in-suit monster which is somewhat ruined by the blur effect digitally added over him for 98% of his onscreen appearances.  Hrothgar demands the creature fight him but it refuses and we flash to daytime as a woman dressed like a modern-day Final Fantasy character attempts to escape the castle and is caught by a group of soldiers dressed in what appears to be left-over and unused props and costumes from Mortal Kombat.

They prepare to chop her in half with a giant spring-loaded straight razor, but the whinnying of a horse silences them as Beowulf arrives and asks what the happy hell they’re doing.  He tells them to let her go but of course they don’t listen so he demonstrates why he’s the protagonist with a barrage of silly weaponry, including but not limited to: dual crossbows, mini retractable pick-axes, and a sword with a handbrake that has a smaller knife in the bottom of the handle.

This fight scene plays out like something from Army of Darkness, it’s ridiculously over the top, but unlike Sam Raimi’s gift to humanity there’s no winking acknowledgement that what we’re seeing onscreen is meant to be ridiculous.  This scene and all the others like it are played completely straight, the only indication I could find that there might even be a joke is the fact that these guys:

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look a great deal like these guys:

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Now let’s talk about Christopher Lambert.  Lambert is pretty much popular because of 1986’s Highlander where the American-born French actor played an immortal Scottish Highlander who sword-fights with others of his kind for the purpose of becoming mortal again.  The movie was a cult hit and produced 5 sequels, a TV show (starring Adrian Paul as a distant cousin of Lambert’s character), a made-for-TV movie about one of the characters from the TV show, a post-apocalyptic children’s cartoon about yet another distant cousin of Lambert’s character, and an anime movie about an honorary distant cousin in 2007.  The sequels are varying shades of terrible, as is pretty much all of Lambert’s film career outside of the first movie.

Christopher Lambert has an extremely limited range that basically consists of wry chuckling and a haughty knowing look that takes advantage of his caveman brow and intense eyes.  He does have a certain indescribable charm and a unique gravelly voice that puts him head and shoulders above other actors in his range, but he can’t really sell any emotion other than bemused disdain.  I think, save for the success of Highlander, he owes his career to the fact that Rutger Hauer occasionally turns down roles.

Aside from his role as Connor MacLeod, Lambert is probably best known for his role as Rayden in Paul W.S. Anderson’s good-for-what-it-was film adaptation of Mortal Kombat.  However, there was [trigger warning] a sequel to Mortal Kombat called Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, which featured James Remar as Rayden.  This was the movie that Lambert did instead of Annihilation, and I still can’t decide if he made a bad decision or not.  Anyhow, back to the synopsis.

After the fight, the woman jumps on Beowulf’s horse and they ride back toward the castle.  She vomits some exposition about the evil within and then hops off and runs back to be killed by the soldiers.  Beowulf says “no” with the correct amount of “o’s” to show that he feels really bad about her dying, and then grimly turns to ride toward the doom fortress atop Mount Fuckyeah.

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Beowulf gets inside and meets Hrothgar and his captain of the guard, Roland (Gotz Otto), who thinks he is there to investigate the death of Hrothgar’s son-in-law.  Beowulf assures him that he’s just there to kill monsters and when Hrothgar asks him how he got past the soldiers, sarcastically asking if he just asked them nicely. Beowulf says “something like that” and gives that inimitable wall-eyed knowing look that Christopher Lambert gives when he’s just said something that’s meant to seem clever.  You get it?  He said that thing he says in the Highlander movies, do you get it?  DO YOU GET IT!?

After being questioned about his intentions by Hrothgar he then meets the man’s daughter Kyra, who he greets by very blatantly staring directly at her breasts.

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Kyra just re-iterates all the things her father just said and the questions he has just asked.  Kyra is played by Rhona Mitra, fresh off her stint as the “official” Lara Croft: Tomb Raider for Eidos Interactive.  The fact that any career waited for Mitra, let alone the one she now has, after this movie is nothing short of amazing.

Mitra is probably the best actor in the entire movie, it’s just hard to realize due to her thankless role composed of dialogue cut-and-pasted from the big book of generic grim-dark cliches and a narrative equivalent of white noise.  (I assume that in the original draft the character’s name was “Breasts” and her stage directions were to keep her mouth shut and be sure to bounce when she walked.)

We move to the courtyard where Roland attempts to whip his troops into shape in a goofy scene meant to mean something, I assume.  Roland is just awful. Ganz Otto chews scenery like crazy and his acting is manic and unnatural, but Roland’s facial expressions are comedy gold.  My personal favorite is the one he makes at dinner when Kyra makes a catty comment about Beowulf.

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We now launch into a barrage of filler subplots that go nowhere interesting.  A rundown of the subplots: Kyra’s murdered husband, Roland’s love of Kyra and jealousy of Beowulf, Beowulf’s origin story as a half-demon and his quest to eliminate others of his kind, and the assistant weapons master ascending to the role of head weapon’s master after his uncle dies.

The last subplot plays a big part in the story. Beowulf pumps the kid’s ego up and convinces him to make a very important weapon for him, and that’s it’s of the utmost importance to get it right, because it is integral to killing Grendel.  Would you like to see the ultimate weapon which Beowulf has requested?

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Yup, it’s a knife on a wristband. That is the ultimate weapon that Beowulf has to have to cut off Grendel’s arm (Not sorry for the spoiler, you’ve had over a thousand years to read it by now) and win his false victory.  Then, as in the story, he has to contend with Grendel’s mother.  Grendel’s mother is played by Playboy playmate Layla Roberts and she looks like she just walked off the set of a softcore porn.  The overdone make-up, the mesh dress, the crimped hair, they all paint a picture of ridiculousness that I can’t even begin to summarize.  She’s fortunately an adequate actress but it’s very fortunate that this movie has already given us plenty of reasons not to take it seriously already before she appears onscreen.

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Grendel’s mother reveals that Grendel is Hrothgar’s lovechild and it was their unholy banging which caused his wife to throw herself from the top of the castle.  I want to take a moment to point out that Robert Zemeckis’ adaptation of Beowulf from 2007 (which everyone loved in spite of the fact that it’s pure liquid awful) stole that plot point from this movie, as it wasn’t in the original poem.  Hrothgar tries to kill her but a still-alive Grendel kills him first, this prompts a fight scene between he and Beowulf which is probably 90% back-flips.  Grendel’s mother recognizes Beowulf’s half-demon heritage and appeals to his hunger for human blood, but he’s not having this shit so she takes her fearsome true form which-

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Holy shit, did I get a work-print?  Did somebody forget to finish the CG?  Nope, that’s what she’s actually meant to look like.  I realize this movie was made nearly 20 years ago, but this is just bargain basement awful CG even for 1999.  I want to remind you that this movie opened the same week as The Matrix!   The animals in Jumanji looked better than that, the titular monsters in Stan Lee’s Harpies looked better than that, The Scorpion King from The Mummy Returns looked better than that.  This is complemented by close-ups of Layla Roberts in decent-looking if silly practical make-up.  Even if the CG looked good, that’s just an awful design, it’s like an 80s metal album and a 90s superhero comic had a muscle-fiber and spike covered baby that went through an H.R. Giger phase.  It’s awful in general, but compared to Grendel it looks even worse.

I would like to assess the deeper meaning of this one, but it’s just a hodgepodge of lame tropes.  That insult applies not only to the plot, but the dialogue, set and costume design, and even the music.  This movie may have the worst soundtrack I’ve ever heard and its only made worse by the awful way its used. Music just pops up in the middle of scenes with no fade or onscreen cue to indicate that it should even be there.  Beowulf rides into the outpost to what sounds like an Ace of Base song and the fight scenes are scored with this awful electronic industrial music that sounds like a non-catchy version of the Mortal Kombat theme.  This movie is a black hole of suck which seems to have killed the career of director Graham Baker (Director of Alien Nation, The Omen III, and Impulse)

That being said, this isn’t a total write-off.  Clean up the CG and get a different soundtrack (or just somebody who knows how to put music to film) and you’d have what basically amounts to an Albert Pyun movie with Christopher Lambert in a role that seems almost tailor-made for Rutger Hauer (all the way down to Lambert’s bleached hair) but that’s not why you should watch it.

The one thing that Beowulf has going for it is its earnestness.  Beowulf is the very definition of inept, and the fact that it seems so determined to make the audience take it seriously makes it wonderful to behold.  Like I described above with the opening fight scene, it’s the way that there is no winking nod to how campy everything appears that makes it funny and that’s why this movie, like other solid gold turkeys such as Plan Nine From Outer Space, The Room, Miami Connection, and Hellinger, is worth watching.  This doesn’t make the movie a solid watch, it loses some momentum at the midpoint that it never quite regains, but it’s a pretty good time for something so unequivocally awful.

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Beowulf is available on DVD and streaming from Amazon and can be found on Netflix instant.

“He never told me his name.  I call him ‘No-Name.'”