Liam Neeson battles nature in The Grey

Guess who wins.

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In The Grey, Liam Neeson is once again in alpha-male mode, but unlike Taken — where he needed a clicker to keep track of his body count — the 59-year-old Irish actor faces a far more daunting challenge than smarmy bad guys who can’t shoot straight.

A plane crash. Brutal weather. A plunge into an icy river. A jump off a cliff. And wolves — big, bad wolves. Mangy, toothy, howling wolves out to maul a motley group of men one by one.

Directed by action specialist Joe Carnahan (Smokin’ Aces, The A-Team), The Grey aims to be more than an adrenalized survival film. As Neeson’s character John Ottway attempts to lead a motley band of roughnecks through the unrelenting Alaskan tundra, the film examines larger themes: death, spirituality and the after-life; male hierarchy, teamwork. These ideas are explored through segments of dialogue, usually around a fire, the wolves hovering just out of sight. The seven men on this essentially hopeless journey gradually evolve from squabbling to gallows humor to moments of sensitivity and openness. Ultimately, though, the overriding issues are: How do I save my ass? Is it possible? And is it even worth it?

Ottway works as a wolf sniper on a remote oil rig, keeping workers safe by picking off the charging beasts. A broken dude, he scrawls out a letter to the wife who left him, then kneels down and inserts a rifle barrel in his mouth. What stops him from carrying out the deed? A wolf howl. A plane flight back to Anchorage encounters a storm. Carnahan deftly orchestrates the crash scene, building the dread, then unleashing the carnage.

Survival game on. One of the film’s most affecting scenes finds Ottway consoling a man as he dies, using tough-but-tender dialogue to provide some measure of comfort and closure. This gesture, more than anything, more than even his knowledge of wolves, establishes Ottway as the leader of the scruffy, surly band of leftovers. Forget about being rescued, he says; we gotta move. Ottway gets challenged, of course, and of course he prevails.

The film was shot in British Columbia in temperatures that bottomed out at minus 37 and winds reaching 60 miles an hour. How’s that for authenticity? The blustery, starkly beautiful landscape shots underscore the notion that humans will persist in their self-preservation no matter how dire the circumstances. And then again, some don’t.

There are times the wolves test the audience’s credulity. For instance, when the survivors first encounter them in the dark, they appear as sets of small, ominous headlights. These big uglies look to be a combination of animatronics, CGI and real animals, and are generally scary and believable. During the attack scenes, Carnahan falls back on the shopworn technique of using extreme close-ups, sudden loud noises and jerky-camera chaos. (Which begs the question: Do we really want to see these maulings in fine detail?) Yeah, the sequences can make you jump, but most of the time they’re telegraphed.

Neeson — his lined, weathered face the subject of many tight shots — lends a necessary gravitas to the movie. While his Taken role as an avenging CIA operative was a one-note hoot, his work in The Grey is more befitting his status as an actor with range and depth. Neeson’s cohorts are a well cast group of lesser-knowns (among them Dallas Roberts and Dermot Mulroney), most of whom succeed at developing real characters amid the action. (Note: the only women in the movie are a couple of flight attendants, one who is seen briefly being munched on by a wolf after the plane crash.)

For all its craft and visceral realism — the film will make a willing viewer feel the cold and the danger — The Grey ultimately doesn’t quite coalesce. Carnahan’s attempt at high-mindedness in the midst a survival movie, while well intentioned, seems just beyond his grasp.

About The Author

Eric Snider

Eric Snider is the dean of Bay area music critics. He started in the early 1980s as one of the founding members of Music magazine, a free bi-monthly. He was the pop music critic for the then-St. Petersburg Times from ‘87-’93. Snider was the music critic, arts editor and senior editor of Weekly Planet/Creative...
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