It’s January, which means battle-tested Liam Neeson has his annual low-budget action/adventure counter programming at the ready for everyone tired of the dour films that populate awards seasons and critics’ lists. He’s done it before with Taken and Unknown, and in the same vein comes The Grey.
Here’s the problem, if you can call it that: Unlike the two previously mentioned pieces of Euro-trash, The Grey is something more, foregoing the usual paper-thin plots that are really just there to move Neeson from punching one person to the next and using his raspy, Irish voice to scare the hell out of anyone he can’t reach with his mitts.
The Grey is a victim of its own advertising, which paints the movie as a vehicle for Neeson to whip a group of ragtags into hardened outdoorsmen, taking time to punch wolves in the face with the set of Wolverine claws he MacGyvered out of booze shooters and electrical tape. In reality, the movie is far more reserved, visceral and at times deeply affecting.
Neeson plays Ottway, a quiet man who protects oil workers in remote Alaska from the threat of wolves and other game that may want to interfere with their drilling. The film begins with a bit of his internal monologue, which gets a pass because it’s delivered through a letter he’s writing but has no intention of sending.
There’s something about Neeson playing such a sad and wounded character that just works. He’s proven himself a gifted actor in films like Schindler’s List and Kinsey. Maybe it’s fragility in a man of his stature or knowing the details of the personal tragedy he suffered when he lost his wife a few years ago, but his ability to physically imposing and sympathetic at the same time works especially well here.
Once we’re given a glimpse into Ottway’s life before the crash, director Joe Carnahan wastes no time getting to the crash in question. A quick note about Carnahan, who’s worked with Neeson on The A-Team just about every other 20- to 30-something actor in Smoking Aces: This is the director at his most restrained and conventional. The use of handheld cameras and tightly framed shots, along with extreme close-ups make The Grey more intimate than it could have been, considering the epic and vast nature of the nature setting.
As a result, the scene where the plane goes down stays focused on the men who survive and perish, not the storm or the plane or any other element that could have distracted the audience. (Not to mention that it’s cheaper). The sound design and editing also go a long way to signify the grave nature of the crash.
Beyond that is a movie full of grave decisions and a sense of inevitability that becomes its backbone.
The Grey has its weak points, specifically the supporting cast, which is disappointingly paint-by-numbers and a script that throws in a crisis of faith in the last act when it should have been building better characters the whole way through. People die in the movie, that’s a given. But it’s not until the last 30 minutes that you finally start to feel for them.