I know what you're thinking. Liam Neeson trudging through the Alaskan wilderness in a humdrum January survivalist thriller flick. Looks kinda like Alive and certainly doesn't have a whole lot to offer horror fans. But what promotional materials only hint at, wild wolves watching the every move of these men as they battle for survival amidst the harshest conditions, is actually the central struggle of this surprisingly engaging tale from writer/director Joe Carnahan.
Adapted from Ian Mackenzie Jeffers' short story "Ghost Walkers," The Grey tackles numerous themes as its story plays out. These men are put to the ultimate test, left for dead in a place not meant for man. If that weren't enough, the discovery that they've unwittingly landed right in the middle of a massive wolf den lends a certain sense of immediacy to their journey. Ever waiting on the periphery, watching with glowing eyes, these snarling, bloodthirsty beasts don't take too kindly to intruders. As the men move south towards the river against the remotest hopes of survival, the wolf pack stalk them, studying their weaknesses and picking them off one by one.
The film is a return to form of sorts for director Joe Carnahan, whose gritty 2002 film Narc carried with it a gripping intensity the director has had difficulty recapturing in slick follow-ups Smokin' Aces and The A-Team. But The Grey demonstrates that same quiet intensity of the earlier work, a subtle injection of adrenaline pulling audiences into eyes of the characters and carrying them along for the ride.
Joining Neeson is a solid ensemble that includes Frank Grillo as unstable, sociopathic Diaz; Dermot Mulroney as quiet, determined family man Talget and Dallas Roberts as even-tempered Henrick. Joe Anderson, Nonso Anozie, Ben Bray and James Badge Dale round out the cast.
In the opening moments, Liam Neeson's character Ottway, a sharpshooter tasked with protecting the refinery from wild animals, sits alone at a bar thinking back to happier times. After writing a letter to his deceased, it seems as though he's planning to end the movie early. But he sees something that convinces him to carry on. He sleeps off his depression and departs with the rest of the men on the morning's flight for a two week vacation.
A short while later, Ottway is yanked from a pleasant daydream into a brutal crash sequence as the plane plummets into the icy grounds below. One of only eight survivors, it's here that Ottway's respect for life and his own humanity comes into play. In one of the most gut-wrenching scenes of the film, Ottway comforts a character and holds him as he calmly talks him to death's door.
As the men emerge from the wreckage, Ottway becomes the de facto leader of the group. Assuming their own survival must have some meaning, the men gather what useful items they can and head "into the fray," as the poem Ottway remembers from his childhood begins.
Liam Neeson's career has taken some unusual turns in recent years, transforming the actor from perennial Oscar contender to B-movie action star. Not to take anything away from fun-spirited fare like Taken (and Taken 2 coming later this year), but it's hard to forgot that Neeson is capable of so much more. Here the actor gives his strongest performance since 2005's Batman Begins. While it would be easy for Neeson to simply wallow in the clichéd territory of the grizzled oil worker proving his manhood in a run-of-the-mill man vs. wild tale, Neeson's performance elevates the material. He digs deep and pulls viewers into his personal struggle.
One of The Grey's greatest feats is in the portrayal of the wolves themselves. In recent years patient filmgoers have tolerated some truly awful digital renditions of these wild beasts, most glaringly in the Twilight series. But Carnahan plays it smart, limiting the appearances of the predators to watchful forces on the periphery and balancing a recipe of real and animatronic wolves with just a dose of CGI to a largely seamless end result.
Even during the story's many quiet moments, set against the majestic white backdrops and peaceful quiet of the wilderness, the watchful predators on the periphery keep the intensity at a low rumble. Sounds of the wolves pushing through brush and the nightly howls as they follow from afar keep the men and thereby the audience on appropriate edge. There are plenty of jolts, but they never feel contrived or cheap. The quiet pacing and peaceful setting lulls audiences to craft the biggest scares from the unlikeliest moments. Just as the story starts to trudge a bit too deep, dipping into ruminations of life and its meaning, along come the hungry wolves, roaring and snarling on the attack to bring pulses back up to speed.
The Grey's achievements are not to be overstated. It doesn't reinvent the wheel or necessarily offer anything we haven't seen before. But what it does it does well, managing to avoid too many clichés and offering up a solid story, strong performances and carefully constructed, unimposing direction from Carnahan. It's a welcome reprieve from the kind of short attention span flash cuts many directors rely on these days to shield flimsy effect work and even flimsier story lines. The Grey is a solid piece of escapist fare, pure and simple.