Thinking Man vs. Wild

Director Joe Carnahan gives an actual human element to this masculine survival tale

The title 8 Million Ways to Die was already taken, so The Grey had to settle for The Grey, named for the plus-size wolves waging war on the desperate human survivors of an Alaskan wilderness plane crash. Tough situation. Frostbite. Wolf bite. Drowning. Falling from great heights. Harsh outcomes abound for both man and beast.

Yet the film takes some time to let its characters ruminate, by way of dialogue, on their circumstances, which gives The Grey a distinctly late-20th-century feel. The film stars Liam Neeson, a bona fide 59-year-old action hero, as an oil refinery sharpshooter charged with keeping predators at bay. Working from a short story by Ian Mackenzie Jeffers, who wrote the script’s first draft, co-writer and director Joe Carnahan places the formidable Neeson in the middle of a scary and bracing picture with more on its mind than advertised. Some of The Grey is phony, and it was a mistake to make the rogue wolves large enough to be mistaken for critters out of Twilight. But Carnahan is smart enough to keep full-view images of the antagonists in check. There’s an actual human element to go with Carnahan’s Jack London-inspired depiction of humans against the elements.

We meet Neeson’s character, a heartbroken loner named John Ottway, on the verge of suicide and thinking back, obsessively, to the woman who got away. His demons temporarily quelled, Ottway boards a small plane with his fellow refinery workers and in one of the most nerve-racking flights ever put on film, the aircraft runs afoul of bad weather and crashes. (For a turbulence wimp like me, this scene was not easy.)

Eight survive, at first. Ottway, the alpha male, knows what he’s doing. So does the alpha male of the wolf pack on their trail. The rest of the humans are played by an interesting ensemble of nonstars including Dermot Mulroney, Dallas Roberts, Nonso Anozie, Frank Grillo and others. The film shrewdly does not tip its hand about who’s living and who’s dying.

Carnahan indulges himself in ways most filmmakers would avoid: He gives several of the men, for example, extended soul-searching discussions about God’s existence (or not), about owning up to one’s fears, about the precarious nature of love. The best parts of The Grey connect the interior lives of these roughnecks with their newfound and lethal obstacles to safety. Carnahan made Smokin’ Aces (which I hated) and The A-Team (which wasn’t bad, actually); wisely, he shot and edited The Grey like neither of those pictures. This one’s more relaxed in its rhythms, a brooding drama about a brooding man in a terrible situation. Only occasionally are there computer-generated ravines that must be leapt across; thankfully much of the action was shot in northern British Columbia, and a lot of the wind and snow and scenery is real.

My favorite shot of Carnahan’s is a close-up on Mulroney’s face as he waits in line, behind Neeson, for a tricky ravine crossing. Most directors wouldn’t care much about the supporting actor; they’d be too worried about fluffing up the lead’s heroics.

Neeson holds it together from first to last. He is the rumbly voiced king of the late-January/early February action film, per Taken and Unknown, and by now moviegoers have been subliminally conditioned to pay money to hear that warm hearth of a speaking voice, under duress but coolly so, this time of year. Call The Grey Deliverance Lite, with snow and wolves. Call it a solid January surprise.

The Grey (R) ★★★☆☆

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