Beowulf (1999) Movie Review

Genre films don’t get any sillierthan the 1999 Christopher Lambert star vehicle “Beowulf”, and if you’ve been mired in this corner of the cinema world long enough, this is no surprise. Like Paul Anderson’s “Mortal Kombat” (which “Beowulf” apes with its cover-to-cover techno soundtrack and opening title sequence) there’s nary a logical plotline or believable character to be found. All of this would seem to indicate that “Beowulf” isn’t worth your time. This may, in fact, be true if you were inclined towards more artsy, substantive fare; but for those used to, and indeed wallows with great joy in, the usual Lambert brand of mayhem — a lot of quips, shallow characterization, and broad action — “Beowulf” is deceptively entertaining.

The movie stars Lambert as the titular Beowulf, a half-human, half-something-else mercenary of some type who wanders into a bad situation on the outskirts of a post-apocalyptic world. The world in which the movie exists within is hard to figure out, as people travel by horse, medieval-type armor and weaponry are abundant, but mechanical equipment like pulleys and speakers are in use. A sort of amalgamation of grungy medieval society and industrial life, if you will. In any case, it’s into this anachronistic fantasy landscape that Beowulf enters an outpost where the occupants are besieged by a killer creature inside, and an army preventing them from leaving said outpost on the outside.

The creature in question is Grendel, although I don’t think the name is ever said until it’s mentioned off-handedly by a woman credited as “Grendel’s mother”, played here by former Playboy playmate Layla Roberts. It would appear that the mysterious Roberts, who shows up intermittently in the film’s first 70 minutes to tease the audience with her surgery-given assets, has something of a grudge against the outpost’s present ruler, Hrothgar (Oliver Cotton). Again, we don’t really know this until toward the end, as much of the film concerns itself with Beowulf and company hunting Grendel in the confines of the outpost’s corridors and secret rooms.

Not surprisingly, there’s a lot of padding in “Beowulf”, especially in the first hour, where the pacing is so off as to be disorienting. Most of the running time is spent on lesser subplots that will hold no interest to anyone, most of all the audience. There’s the whole thing about Hrothgar’s daughter, Kyra (Rhona Mitra, “Highwaymen”) and her “accidentally” dead husband; as well as Beowulf’s origins, which will come as no surprise to anyone who has read the original poem in school. Luckily for us, director Graham Baker (“Alien Nation”) knows enough about his audience that he parades the oh so lovely Rhona Mitra in front of the screen at every given opportunity. Thank you, Mister Baker.

Further convincing the audience to keep their eyes open even if their ears start tuning out all those long, uninteresting expository scenes, is Miss Mitra’s wardrobe, which mostly consists of a low-cut black leather bustier. Alas, Baker and company skimps on any actual nudity from the then-unknown Mitra (and really, she’s still relatively unknown now), which genre fans should take note as a major cheat. In fact, it’s a shame Mitra is mostly put to poor use, as the few action sequences that she is allowed to be in really sells her short. For the most part she’s kept in the background, and her one major stab (literally) at the villain is her character tossing a spear at the monster. The lack of credible action for Mitra’s character wouldn’t be so painfully obvious if the film didn’t keep trying to convince us she’s supposed to be a rebel woman warrior battling her “place” in society.

The script for “Beowulf” is serviceable, and not surprisingly, it’s enamored with the cliché of its own genre. Gotz Otto gets the thankless role of the brooding/jealous/arrogant jerk that gets in Beowulf’s way, snarling his way through half of the movie until — tada! — he realizes Beowulf is a swell guy after Beowulf saves his life. Brent Lowe plays the supposed comic relief (“supposed” because he’s not very funny), whose character is an assistant weaponsmith (thanks to nepotism) until the real weaponsmith (played by “Night Court’s” Charles Robison, no less) gets offed by Grendel during one of his late-night jaunts around the outpost. Gee, didn’t anyone tell this guy there was a killer monster on the loose? I guess not.

Where “Beowulf” earns its right to be called a good film to shut down one’s brain to is in the energetic action. The film opens with a fight between Beowulf and a gaggle of soldiers, and there is a fight (drowning in techno, of course) about every 10 minutes or so. Speaking of which, the techno is pretty annoying, unless you’re one of those people who loves techno regardless of the fact there’s no variation or that they sound exactly like the “Mortal Kombat” soundtrack, only done in different keys (for fear of a lawsuit, one presumes). It’s also strangely entertaining to watch Christopher Lambert’s stunt double tossing in a series of back flips in just about every action scene the character finds himself in. And when I say there are a lot of back flips in “Beowulf”, I mean there are a lot of back flips in “Beowulf”.

The other element that “Beowulf” excels in is the set design. The outpost looks very unique, especially in its combination of medieval grunge and post-industrial. Even so, there are some designs that just doesn’t work, and screams “creative leeway for the production staff” just a bit too much. One is a gigantic sword (which looks a bit like a chainsaw) that Cotton’s character lugs around. Can he even swing that thing, even the prop version? Otto’s Roland is also armed with his own ludicrously long sword. For her part, Kyra gets a tiny knife that probably couldn’t prick the skin of a fruit fly.

As genre films go, “Beowulf” gets brownie points for being slightly more ambitious than its brethrens (the “look” of the film, in particular). Shot for a reported $20 million, it’s probably one of Lambert’s more expensive direct-to-video offering, and half that budget either went to the set designs, or into buying the rights for all those techno music stolen from “Mortal Kombat”. The film does drag in a few places, mostly in the first hour, and Grendel ends up getting killed way too easily. (Basically he gets jumped in the back. Literally.) But for fans of Lambert’s usual brand of mayhem and action, “Beowulf” is a slightly above average entry in the man’s repertoire.

Graham Baker (director) / Mark Leahy, David Chappe (screenplay)
CAST: Christopher Lambert …. Beowulf
Rhona Mitra …. Kyra
Oliver Cotton …. Hrothgar
Götz Otto …. Roland
Vincent Hammond …. Grendel

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