Liam Neeson has seemingly reinvented himself as cinema’s new favourite badass following the successes of Taken, The A-Team, and Unknown. After being quite well known for having a different set of skills entirely as an actor appearing mostly in serious dramas and prestige films (the Patrick Swayze potboiler Next of Kin, not withstanding), Neeson reteams with A-Team director Joe Carnahan for The Grey, a reasonably entertaining B-movie about men trying to survive in a harsh climate with even harsher wildlife.
Neeson plays Ottway, a depressed sniper hired by an oil company to keep wild animals from attacking the workers at a remote Alaskan refinery. On his way home from his most recent scheduled rotation, his plane crashes in the middle of the tundra and he becomes one of only seven survivors, most of whom are either too self involved (since most of the roughnecks he worked with were outcasts, loners, and criminals) or too scared to be any useful. Ottway attempts to impart some sanity and survival skills in an attempt to bring the men together before a pack of nearby wolves (whose den the plane crashed near) pick them off one by one.
While all the talk of how awesome it would be to watch Neeson punch a wolf in the face has reached a fever pitch, the film definitely arrives with a hype that needs to be tempered just a tad. While Carnahan delivers what’s easily his best film since 2002’s Narc, the material here isn’t entirely enough to sustain a dragged out running time and a story that loses steam as the crew of survivors begins to dwindle.
In typical horror and disaster movie fashion, the supporting cast members are all archetypes, but Carnahan is smart enough to not kill them all off in the order most genre fans would be expecting. The action sequences are intense, and while the wolves themselves don’t appear very convincing (seen mostly in melee style flourishes), Carnahan creates a mood and feeling that lulls viewers into a false sense of confidence. Nearly every attack in the film is a complete out-of-the blue surprise, which is commendable in any film of this nature.
Other than dragging his story out, Carnahan’s script (co-written with Ian Mackenzie Jeffers, who wrote the short story the film is based on) aims to be another pretentious economic parable in the same vein as David Mamet’s The Edge. At times, it’s a bit too poetic for its own good, especially down the draggy stretch where the action should be picking up instead of slowing down. Plus there’s that whole “wolves don’t actually attack people” business, but then again, this really is just a simple B-movie with slightly grander intentions.
Although to Carnahan’s further credit, this film was tailor made for Liam Neeson. No one else could play the role of Ottway the way that he does. Audiences clamouring for Neeson in full on ass kicking mode will be pleased, but also quite pleasantly surprised by how deep his character actually is. It’s made known early on that something is deeply troubling Ottway, but nothing is fully established until very late in the film what’s going on behind his gruff exterior. Carnahan also gives Neeson a line that will easily become as iconic as some of his best onscreen moments and is guaranteed to get cheers and claps from appreciative audiences.
Neeson hasn’t been better than this in quite some time. His films have always been decent, but here he gives a fully realized performance. In a way, Ottway’s sadness and anger feels like an actor tapping into something deeply personal. For the first time, Neeson has actually tapped into a logical scholarly defence for his entire recent filmography. Neeson tells more here with a single pained and pensive glance than reams of Carnahan’s dialog ever could.
While the film undeniably satisfies the craving for some action, it’s hard not to see the ending as a bit of a let down. It doesn’t ruin the movie, but it’s more needlessly “poetic” than the rest of the movie and not nearly as strong as the first hour and forty minutes of the film are. It’s a snarling dog of a movie that goes out like someone stepped on its tail. Then again, there is a little something at the end of the credits…