At some point, Robert Zemeckis must've gotten tired of being called soft.
How else would you explain the Oscar-winning director taking the ages-old epic poem "Beowulf" and turning it into a violent, jolting, computer-generated attack on the senses where men and women walk around butt-bald-nekkid?
"Beowulf" is loud, jangly, bombastic -- and, somehow, gives you your money's worth. It's $150 million worth of computerized, three-dimensional mythological mayhem that you'll either find fantastic or fantastically chaotic.
Just as he did in "The Polar Express," Zemeckis makes it an all-motion-captured, astoundingly artificial experience. He takes Ray Winstone and shaves off his "Sexy Beast" fat to make him the chiseled, fearless hunk of man that is the title character.
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He and his blustery Viking crew head to Heorot, the land of King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins, channeling Oliver Reed), taking him up on his offer to dispose of the shrieking monster (Crispin Hellion Glover) who randomly wreaks fatal havoc on his people.
This "Beowulf" is not for devotees of the epic poem. Nor is it a kids' movie. Zemeckis, along with the screenwriting dream team of comic-book great Neil Gaiman and "Pulp Fiction" co-writer Roger Avary, indeed twists "Beowulf" and sexes it up for the moist fanboys and the younger, starting-to-drink-and-explore-their-sexuality crowd. They turn Grendel's mom into a vengeance-seeking, water-demon temptress (they hire Angelina Jolie -- of course -- for this), who seduces Beowulf, all nude and glistening, into the throne he will eventually inherit and sets him up to do battle with an even more destructive monster down the line.
Apparently, Zemeckis wants to nail home the point that though Beowulf was a warrior who talked a lot of game, he was still a man who couldn't resist a hot dame.
Zemeckis, Gaiman and Avary's attempt to modernize a literary work like "Beowulf" for today's audiences would seem somewhat noble if there weren't this smug sense from them that they had to improve on the original. And you could make the argument that a myths-and-monsters story like "Beowulf" could only be made with computers. But everything feels more detached than fully realized. The sight of actors like Brendan Gleeson, Robin Wright Penn and John Malkovich as their digitalized selves is almost more jarring and unreal than anything that goes on this fantasy.
But I would be lying if I said there weren't sequences in this thing that didn't thrill. Beowulf going one-on-one with Grendel naked (don't ask) and the climactic battle scene are two of those moments. With every cent of $150 mil working on-screen, "Beowulf" certainly commands your full attention in the theater.