Two elements of "Beowulf & Grendel" make a mixed-up and unbalanced picture nearly worthwhile. One is Iceland. Shooting in various, epically craggy corners of a country that hasn't been location-scouted to death, the film's makers resort to not a single computer-generated effect in this pictorially imposing retelling of the heroic tale. (Scholars date "Beowulf" to somewhere between the seventh and 11th centuries.)
The other element you never fully see. It's a bone-white sea creature -- Death, glimpsed only as a forearm with claw-like digits -- which appears now and then in Icelandic-born Canadian director Sturla Gunnarsson's picture. As that ashen-looking arm grabs for a victim, it's horrible -- and sort of beautiful.
Gunnarsson likes it like that but only rarely achieves both extremes. This gristle-intensive R-rated version of "Beowulf" travels a predictable revisionist route. No longer an evil descendant of Cain -- the poem's tensions between pagan Norse legend and Christianity have been heightened in the screenplay -- Grendel becomes a victim of blind, brutish racism.
The time is AD 500. Early we see Hrothgar (Stellan Skarsgard), king of the Danes, murdering the father of the hairy blond troll-child, Grendel. (Grown up, bitter and even more hairy, he's played by Ingvar Sigurdsson.) Screenwriter Andrew Rai Berzins is super-intent on placing our sympathies with the misunderstood loner. When a title card announces "From the sea, a hero," heralding the arrival of monster-slayer Beowulf, the audience thinks: Haven't we already met our hero? The anguished troll with the considerable forehead, righteously counter-terrorizing his tormentors?