With Liam Neeson, Dermot Mulroney, Frank Grillo, Dallas Roberts, Nonso Anozie. Written by Joe Carnahan & Ian Mackenzie Jeffers. Directed by Joe Carnahan. Rated R (for violence/disturbing content including bloody images, and for pervasive language). 117 minutes.
At a time in life when leading dramatic actors start moving into character roles, Liam Neeson has gone in the other direction and become an action star. In just the last few years he’s tracked down Eurotrash kidnappers in “Taken,” gotten involved in assassination and betrayal in “Unknown,” led “The A-Team” and was Zeus in the remake of “Clash Of The Titans.” Sure, he’s taken some small character roles in between, but when he’s the lead, chances are he’s either beating the bag out of someone (if he hasn’t already shot them in the face), or just plain releasing the Kraken.
In THE GREY, he’s taking on a pack of wolves. No, he’s not a bouncer in a nightclub, he’s Ottway, a man who has lost everything important to him and taken a job in a remote part of Alaska. His job is killing wolves which may threaten the men who work at the site. Now on a plane back to civilization, he’s one of a handful of survivors when it crash-lands. Without hope of rescue, they decide to head south on foot in hope reaching people before it’s too late.
Their journey takes them through the territory of a wolf pack (the effects apparently owing more to animatronics than CGI). Outnumbered, they have to outwit the wolves while trying to move the odds in their favor. It seems hopeless. In fact, it is the men acting even though they may already be doomed that gives the movie its existential atmosphere. As long as they keep going on, they are still in control of their fate.
The problem is that except for Ottway, none of the other characters are really developed. There’s one who resents his assertion of command. Others have their own issues, but none of them develop into people that we really know or care much about. In a sense the men, too, are part of the challenge facing Ottway. He must cope with their fears or counterproductive actions as well as the predatory wolves.
While the location shooting is a plus – you’re taken by the natural beauty one moment and the isolation and desolation the next – ultimately the film is about Ottway facing his own inner demons when he finally faces off against the leader of the wolf pack. The ending will divide audiences and while not to be revealed here, here is a warning: stick around through the closing credits. For some inexplicable reason, there is a final shot inserted for those who might object to how the film proper actually ends.
This is an old-fashioned Jack London tale in some ways, in that it’s a sage of men against raw nature. Neeson provides the necessary gravitas to make this more than a disposable action flick. “The Grey” is about keeping it together when dying, getting hysterical, or just giving up would be much more logical responses. As such, it’s tough-minded movie about persevering even in the face of disaster. For Liam Neeson in his action film mode, the alternative is simply not an option.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being Jar Jar Binks Must Die… And Other Observations About Science Fiction Movies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville.