Liam Neeson has pretty well cemented his place in Hollywood as the number one 59-year-old action star. The Grey tells the story of a group of oil drillers in the Alaskan wilderness, with Neeson starring as Ottway, a wolf sniper who protects the rest of the workers from the dangerous dogs that live in the area. The group is in a massive plane crash shortly after taking off into treacherous weather, leaving all but seven men dead. It turns out that the unarmed, injured, and exhausted men have crashed in the middle of wolf country.
The film exudes gritty realism, while Neeson is able to bring a human element to it. There’s an amazing scene near the beginning of the film in which, shortly after the plane crash, Neeson comforts one of the (barely) survivors in his last moments before dying. It’s an incredible scene to watch, as Ottway instructs the fatally wounded passenger on how to transition into death. This scene works on multiple levels, as it illustrates Ottway’s character as empathetic yet forceful, and it helps the audience get behind him for the rest of the movie.
Once the wolves become the looming villains of the film, the story really begins. The cinematography is fantastic, making the chilling backdrop of the Alaskan landscape seem as deadly as the wolves within it. As is true of any suspenseful movie, what you do not see is often more terrifying than what you do. A shot of the vast, snowy land and the hint of a wolf’s howl in the distance makes for a truly tense experience. The wolves themselves are frightening when we do see them, but it is really the constant threat of them that sustains the film’s impending sense of doom.
Aside from the wolves, The Grey uses compounding dangers to give it a kind of build. There is a devastating plane crash, so the survivors are injured. It is in the middle of nowhere, so there is no food or shelter. It is in the Alaskan wild, so there are man-hungry wolves. Then one of the survivors turns out to be a little crazy. Then everyone comes to a cliff where the choices are limited to becoming wolf feed or jumping into the trees a hundred feet across from the cliff. Director Joe Carnahan, who is known for his realistic and almost documentary-style films (Narc comes to mind), as well as his action sequences (The A-Team, Smokin’ Aces) does a great job juggling the realism with the action sequences in this film, while still making it about character.
One thing to note, however, is that most of the characters in the film (aside from Liam Neeson) tend to blend together. Wait, is that the guy who died on the plane? Oh no, that is the obnoxious guy from earlier. Hold on, I thought he was already dead? Oh no, I’m thinking of somebody else. Yes, all of the performances are solid across the board. But the combination of dark and dramatic lighting, one-note writing, and a consistent element of facial hair make the film turn into “Liam Neeson, everyone else, and the wolves”. Then again, does it really matter?
Even though most of the secondary characters in this film are fairly one-dimensional, Liam Neeson takes it to another level with his portrayal of Ottway, a quiet man who has recently lost his wife (something that Neeson has dealt with in his recent years with the tragic loss of his wife Natasha Richardson in 2009). It is Neeson’s unmatched ability to be calm yet intense, quiet yet powerful that makes this film more than just another bloody thriller. There are wolf fights, epic shots of Alaska, and Liam Neeson. You know what you’re getting going into it, and if that is what you are looking for, then you will not be disappointed when you leave the theater.
Movie Review by Mike Danner