It wasn’t long ago that Liam Neeson was considered a prestigious name in film. Though his early career was peppered with genre roles, “Schindler’s List” put him on the map as an awards-friendly leading man. But in the past few years, Neeson has reinvented himself once again, into the hardest of men, a proud warrior who will throw down with any on-comer. You no longer need exposition in a Liam Neeson movie, only his weathered, battered face.
This serves the spartan wilderness drama “The Grey” quite well. Director Joe Carnahan, he of the bells and whistles of “Smoking Aces” and “The A-Team,” has gone to the wild, focusing on barren wastelands and the icy terrain of Alaska. Neeson plays Ottway, a rugged outdoorsman charged with protecting oil rigs from wolf attacks, but distracted by the pain of the past. His hazy memory of a lost wife remains abstract. Did she die? Did she leave? We put together what we can from Ottway’s tragic voiceover. It’s vague, but just regretful enough that we understand when Ottway places the cold barrel of a gun in his own mouth.
Headed home after another job, Ottway finds himself sharing a plane with the collection of central casting grunts, each with their own distinct “movie” characterization: this one is chatty, this one is cynical, this one is black. It’s actually quite fascinating to see that Neeson, the international superstar and only real recognizable face amongst this bunch, is the most convincing as a real person. We also, of course, know that this means he’ll survive a believable, upsetting plane crash that leaves the survivors in the middle of nowhere.
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There’s instant tension, as not only was Ottway not a member of the oil rig crew, but he’s obviously the oldest and most naturally alpha. He immediately starts barking orders about survival to the younger victims, all of whom are still trembling by what’s just happened. Nobody questions him when he shepherds a dying man stuck in the wreckage to wander towards the light in peace, but attitudes begin to surface as Ottway suggests they head for the woods. Not to be saved, as they all hope, but to avoid the wolves.
“The Grey” is an often devastatingly uncomfortable film. As Ottway and his companions work their way through knee-high snow, the temptation for the viewer is to hold their hands up to their mouths and blow. Carnahan packs his film with survivalist thrills, some as subtle as the patterns of rest and tendency to look out for each other, some as obvious as collapsing ice on mountaintops. Shame about those wolves.
The fanged villains of the piece are the masters of their domain, and, paraphrasing Ottway, our humans have crash-landed right in the middle of Wolf Country. And while Carnahan is dedicated towards the ruthlessness of the weather and atmosphere, the wolves strike at a moment’s notice, some silently and out of nowhere, some from above or below, howling like monsters. The reverb in the stereo gets a nice workout whenever these monstrous creatures are around. Some near the size of humans, these fairly unbelievable, often CG-assisted behemoths have neon eyes that glow in the dark, and visibly taunt their human prey with various fakeouts.
It becomes clear that, in the wolf sequences, Carnahan wanted to make a horror film. Unfortunately, the five-tool filmmaker, who hasn’t put it all together since “Narc,” also wants to make a pitch-dark wilderness thriller. And he’s hamstrung both that idea and the horror of these Monster Wolves by surrounding Ottway with “types.” The only real standout is Frank Grillo, here playing an exasperated contrarian who gets to stick around long enough to regret his actions. In the film’s spookiest moments, he’s darkly funny as someone who doesn’t really want to do the legwork but instead to shirk it, enjoying the pleasures of cursing off the natural order of the world.
Neeson, naturally, is as good as ever, though it’s not a particularly demanding role. Ottway is a man of command, but not particularly of many other words. He’s matched with a filmmaker who has a go-for-broke attitude, but Carnahan’s always been a guy wrestling with his own natural bad taste. A sequence where the group needs to repel across a canyon is a bonafide white-knuckler, and thus far the best moment in his career as far the synthesis between his storytelling honesty and kitchen-sink interest in cheap thrills. Others moments in “The Grey” approach this, but unfortunately it’s saddled with what poisoned his last two films, mostly as far as inconsistent characterization and a coarse sensibility that reduces “The Grey” to sequences of character actors trapped in dull roles, chased by cartoon animals. [C+]