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Beowulf

Okay, so when you read Beowulf in high school, the sexiest it actually got was the use of the word "swive." If all goes well for this new take on an old legend, that word should come back in fashion. A whole Geatish revival, if you will, all because Roger Avary and Neil Gaiman found a way to both make Beowulf thrilling and sexy while still keeping true to its roots as an epic poem.

It also takes Robert Zemeckis, a groundbreaking director having faith in a clever script and then bringing it spectacularly to life. The combination of talents provides a satisfying adventure that might just be educational, too.

Almost literally a John Bolton painting come to life, the film hits all the familiar beats. In Denmark, the mighty but aged warrior King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins) dedicates his sumptuous mead hall Heorot to wine, singing and swiving. Unfortunately for his kingdom, the carousing echoes across the valley to a cave of demons inhabited by Grendel (Crispin Glover).

In a strange way, Grendel may be one of Glover's most sympathetic and understandable creations. Consumed by pain and wearing his skin inside out, the misshapen beast finds his way to Heorot and lays waste to the warriors fighting in a drunken haze. Only Hrothgar seems to strike fear - or at least confusion - in the monster's heart, but not enough to stave off bloodshed.

From a far off land comes Beowulf (Ray Winstone), muscle and pride combined to vanquish Grendel. In this version, however, that pride has a very dark side, which Zemeckis illustrates with not too much subtlety. What Avary and Gaiman have added to the tale is a tragic flaw (in the hero, not the story).

No longer is Beowulf just a tale of adventure to tell by the fireside. Now it has some depth, and a clever way of connecting the first two quests to the last, in which the action flashes forward some years for the aged hero's last battle with a fearsome dragon.

The link comes with Angelina Jolie as Grendel's Demon Mother, a character and performance that plays to some of the wilder aspects of her public perception. It's not a winking performance; instead, Jolie turns up the sensuality, while animators take care of the rest. Snake scales melt and slide off of her, with a spiky tail that easily doubles as a long impossibly golden braid. This demon exudes sexuality as easily as Jolie herself adopts children; it's no wonder that Beowulf's sword becomes literal putty in her hands.

Yes, sexual symbolism drips from this film, and none too subtly. When Beowulf prepares to battle Grendel, he strips down, willing to wrestle the beast as equals. So you'll be forgiven if you think that's not Grendel's arm that Beowulf rips off.

As much as some of this brings a smile, it also is filled with sure-handed action sequences balanced with surprisingly nuanced performances. Even through digital trickery, Winstone can reveal the self-doubt in Beowulf while his voice still bellows his epithets. Hopkins still casts too-piercing knowing gazes around, aided by improvements since The Polar Express. Though the technology still isn't quite perfect, the eyes on these characters are far more lifelike.

They even capture the arrogance of John Malkovich's cold glare, as Hrothgar's eely lieutenant Unferth. The only oddity to that character is his embrace of this new Roman god, the Christ Jesus. It's not the historical inaccuracy - others know better than I do, but it's not mentioned in the poem - it's that it throws in a possible dig at Christianity that didn't need to be there.

However, that's also to the film's credit. That dig is not only debatable, it will open debate. This isn't just a movie to let wash over you, though you can certainly do that. The very literate script also challenges you to think and mull, if such is your wont.

Either way, you must also catch it in 3D if you can. RealD, the house used for the effect, also did Monster House last year, and they've got the process down perfectly. Zemeckis takes advantage of the possibilities inherent in the form, making Beowulf a thrill ride with a soul.

Derek McCaw

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