As inconceivable as it may seem, arguably the best action star in Hollywood right now is a 60-year old Irish man. Since Taken, Liam Neeson has been on an ass-kicking world tour that’s seen him face off against human traffickers, corrupt cops and shady conspiracies. And now in director Joe Carnahan’s The Grey, he’s even taking on Mother Nature herself.
But as his character, Ottway, soon discovers, when faced with the open faced brutality of nature, a man’s biggest enemy is not the pack of red-muzzled wolves snarling at his heels, but rather the man himself.
We first meet the grim Ottway as he comes right to the edge of suicide after losing the love of his life, but is rescued/dragged away by the haunting and beckoning howl of a nearby wolf. Ottway works as a sharpshooter for an Alaskan oil refinery, and it’s his job to keep the packs of local wolves off the rest of the drilling team. A job he performs with an efficiency as cold as the surrounding landscape.
While escorting one of these teams back from a remote drilling excursion, the plane they’re in experiences a malfunction and crashes into the freezing and unrelenting Arctic snowscape. Initially Ottway finds himself with seven fellow miraculous survivors, but as grisly tragedy strikes again he realizes that they have landed smack in the middle of a pack of territorial wolves who will stop at nothing to rid themselves of these intruders.
And so begins a vicious cat and mouse chase as Ottway, who paradoxically still flirts with taking his own life, now has to show these men how to band together and fight for theirs as he attempts to lead them back to civilization across some of the most murderous terrain on earth. And if ice, claw and fang were not enough to contend with, he also faces the antagonistic chest-puffing of ex-con, Diaz (Frank Grillo).
Based on Joe Carnahan’s past credentials (A-Team, Narc, Smoking Aces) , you’d be forgiven for assuming that The Grey was a straight, by the numbers action film. And while it certainly has its fair share of action, from gruesome and visceral wolf attacks to a violent and whirling dervish of a plane crash scene that will leave you occupying only the barest sliver of seat real estate, its in the in-between moments where the meat of this story is truly to be found. It’s in these moments that these tragic men learn that in the war for survival, the biggest battle is having the will to survive and deciding on how you will respond when even that ethereal chance of survival is taken away.
It’s also in these quieter, introspective moments that cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi treats us to sweeping stark vistas, as steeped in arresting beauty as potential death, as packs of wild wolves close in for the kill.
When it comes to the grim faced and fatalistic Ottway, my first reaction would be to say that Neeson just breezes through his portrayal, but please understand that that in no way implies that he is just phoning it in. It’s simply that Neeson has become so damn good at this type of gruff and tragic hero, that he appears to make it look effortless. He simply is Ottway.
Grillo’s Diaz initially borders on action movie stereotype but the script by Carnahan and Ian Mackenzie Jeffers (based off Jeffer’s short story, Ghost Walker) provides an unexpected depth to the character. Tasked with carrying the wallets off all the fallen men, Dermot Mulroney’s Talget acts as the film’s heart, while many others all get their moment to shine. James Badge Dale’s moment may be extremely brief, but his Lewenden provides what is easily the film’s most emotionally hard hitting scene; something that will stay with you long after the screen fades to black.
But in the end, this is Liam Neeson’s stage and he sets it aflame as he rails against his own thoughts, nature and even God himself. When the final scene of this crimson snowed tragedy eventually arrives, it’s Neeson that becomes the avatar of all these men’s hopes, desperation and rage, and with barely a word he pulls it off masterfully.
If you come into this film expecting just Liam Neeson: Wolf Puncher, you will certainly already get your money’s worth, but Joe Carnahan has crafted a film that’s so much more than just it’s razor-wire tense chase sequences or blood soaked man vs wolf battles. This is seminal work from the young director, right up there with his best work and I cannot recommend it enough.
PS: Make sure you sit through the end-credits for a very brief but very important added scene.
Last Updated: April 24, 2012