You're probably going into "Beowulf" expecting another "300" - a chest-beating paean to digitized historic machismo. A return to a time when men were men, women poured the mead, and pixels knew their place.
What you get, though, is something unexpected: an hour of violent, subversive near-parody followed by a meditation on the seductions of power, all wrapped up in a thrillingly vulgar blood-and-thunder 3-D comic book. Not all of it works - and not all of it works the way the target audience of jacked-up young males might want it to - but the movie is hugely provocative fun, and I'm pretty sure that's on purpose.
First things first: This is not the eighth-century epic poem you read in high school. Grendel's mum, that "monster of women," wasn't played by a purring Angelina Jolie even in the best-selling Seamus Heaney translation, nor were the human's and beasties' family trees entwined in ways worthy of a nighttime soap. Anonymous is doubtless rolling in his/her unmarked grave, but, hey, what's oral tradition if you can't improvise a little? Or a lot.
Second things second: "Beowulf" is director Robert Zemeckis's latest attempt to make a feature-length movie using digital motion-capture, a process in which actors' movements are tracked on film via sensors attached to their bodies, then "drawn over" using expensive computer-animation technology.
In "The Polar Express," the result was a cast of zombie children and a creepy, soulless Tom Hanks. The good news is that the technology has improved and that the cast of "Beowulf" merely looks like they have the squints. Occasionally they lumber about woodenly, like Weebles with Actors' Equity cards, and the character of Queen Wealthow (voiced by Robin Wright Penn) does seem to be on loan from the DreamWorks Animation stable. At its worst, the movie suggests "Shrek" on steroids.
At its best, though, "Beowulf" dares to be absurd in ways that open the whole heroic-quest genre to weird, playful scrutiny, and it occasionally takes flight into the plain amazing. The screenwriters are the cult novelist/comics author Neil Gaiman and "Pulp Fiction" co-writer Roger Avary, neither the sort of man to do what he's told. This is good for the movie, if not for college Comp Lit courses.
The setting, at least, is still Denmark in the early sixth century, and Herot, the hall of aging King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins) is still plagued by a rampaging monster named Grendel. Already you sense Zemeckis and his writers are up to something: Hrothgar is a fat, deluded Dionysus with Hopkins's face plastered on, and Grendel, who resembles the Frankenstein monster with his innards on the outside, is voiced with piteous homicidal sympathy by Crispin Glover.
It's a bad-neighbor issue, I guess, since the deafening revels in Herot have driven the noise-sensitive Grendel mad with rage. The first assault is terrifying, with the monster rending Danes limb from digitized limb, and eyeballs and other body parts regularly tossed at the screen (since many theaters are showing "Beowulf" in 3-D, this falls under the heading of contractual requirement). Whoever rated the movie PG-13 should have their MPAA card revoked; I wouldn't let a child near the thing.
Then comes Beowulf, he of brawny demeanor, with a cadre of rough, tough Geats in his wake. The hero is voiced by Ray Winstone but drawn more or less like Sean Bean in "The Lord of the Rings," with additional blond highlights. He's a braggart but the real deal, even if Hrothgar's sniveling second-in-command Unferth (John Malkovich) doesn't trust him, and he quickly drops trou and prepares to battle Grendel in the nude.
Why? Well, it's in the story - "Cast off then his corselet of iron, helmet from head" and all that - but it also gives Zemeckis a way to goof on the posturings of sword-and-sandal movies. As Beowulf fights Grendel, scampering this way and that over the great hall, his private parts always obscured by a convenient sword (!) or piece of furniture, the audience I saw the movie with started snickering, then hooting. Is this "Austin Powers" gone medieval? Are we supposed to be laughing at the movie or with it?
"Beowulf" intriguingly splits the difference - it works as a ripsnorting yarn and as sardonic commentary on same - and if you can't handle dueling agendas, too bad for you. In its second hour, the movie brings on Jolie as a seductive water-nymphomaniac - Grendel's mom has got it going on - and the tale takes a darker turn. In its kitschy, pulp-epic way, "Beowulf" asks us to think about what happens to heroes the day after, and about what monstrous bargains are necessary to take and keep power. It suggests the beasts we battle are of our own making.
Actually, it comes right out and says it - subtlety isn't the movie's strong suit. But there's pleasure to be had in such popcorn philosophizing, and there's sheer wonderment in the aging Beowulf's climactic battle with a dragon, a rocketing action set-piece that soars over cliff and sea at the speed of massive, leathery wings.
"Beowulf" ends on a quiet note of stalemate, though, as if to give the action crowd something to think about as they file out. The movie's a genuine curiosity: an empty-headed techno-blockbuster of ideas. Like all sagas of valor and bloodletting, it asks the question put forth in "Gladiator": "Are you not entertained?" Then it has the nerve to ask "Why?"
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(Correction: Because of a reporting error, the surname of author Seamus Heaney was misspelled in the movie review of "Beowulf" in Friday's Weekend section.)