Because he lived somewhere around the end of the first millennium A.D., the anonymous writer of the Danish heroic epic we know as ``Beowulf" probably wasn't concerned with movie rights.
Too bad; in retrospect he gave away the store. Following upon Seamus Heaney's best-selling 1999 translation, director Robert Zemeckis is preparing a digital motion-capture version for 2007 (think ``The Polar Express" with trolls), and while we wait for that here's a scruffy live-action ``Beowulf & Grendel" from the Iceland-born, Vancouver-raised filmmaker Sturla Gunnarsson.
The film is very near a comedy, and I'm not sure that's on purpose. Starring Gerard Butler (the Phantom of 2004's ``The Phantom of the Opera," of which we will say no more for fear of scaring the livestock), ``Beowulf & Grendel" is a watchably ludicrous mishmash. It features gorgeous Icelandic settings, portentous intertitles, and dialogue by way of ``Monty Python and the Holy Grail." If you've had a few grogs, it's actually kind of fun.
The story, in case you slept through third-period English, is this: King Hrothgar of the Danes (Stellan Skarsgaard) has built a great banquet hall called Herot that's plagued by bloody visitations from a monster named Grendel (Ingvar Eggert Sigurosson). Enter Beowulf of the Geats, handsome and possessed of a seriously vorpal sword. He rips off Grendel's arm in battle and sends him off to die, which only provokes the monster's mother (Elva Osk Olafsdottir) to rise from the sea in wrath. More swordplay, more triumph; in the poem there's a later bit with a dragon, but the movie doesn't go there.
Instead, ``Beowulf & Grendel" aims for something between realism and B-movie mythmaking. The monster is referred to by the Danes as a troll, and he's a big, hairy fella; there's a possibility he may even be a Neanderthal remnant eking out survival during the rise of Homo sapiens. In practice, he doesn't get to do much besides snarl and play nine-pins with the heads of his victims.
Over in Herot, things are spiraling out of control. Skarsgaard, a talented actor who realizes he's signed up for a losing game, gives us a method Hrothgar, funny, odd, and occasionally moving. ``Think you need a beer?" he asks the newly arrived hero; later, quizzed about the monster's motivations, he snaps, ``Oh, Beowulf, it's a [expletive] troll! Maybe someone looked at it wrong!" Truly, this is a king with huge tracts of land.
At least Skarsgaard tries. As a bewitching seeress named Selma (her sisters must be called Babs and Muffy), the usually excellent Sarah Polley bellyflops badly, with flat line-readings that prompt only snickers. Maybe no actress could do anything with dialogue like ``You're the much-told hero from Geatland ," but Polley should have drawn the line at the inter-species sex.
Yet ``Beowulf & Grendel" is hard to look away from. Those immense Icelandic beaches and waterfalls are sweet on the eyes, and Butler buckles his swash well, even when Grendel is pelting him on the helmet with little rocks. The battle scenes are interestingly squalid and unheroic, and Gunnarsson even goes revisionist on us by having Grendel cut off his own arm. Grendel's mom, by contrast, is pure creature-feature silliness.
In the end, ``Beowulf & Grendel" is barking up the wrong medieval tree. Trying to give us the true story behind the epic, the movie only reminds us of why humans write epics in the first place.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.