Liam Neeson battles against wolves in Joe Carnahan’s The Grey…
Liam Neeson has had something of a reinvention as Hollywood’s preferred worldly action hero. After dispensing with numerous Europeans like discarded shop receipts in Taken, he has since built on this persona. His teaming up with director/writer Joe Carnahan, a previous collaborator on The A-Team (in a role originally earmarked for Bradley Cooper) might have you thinking The Grey is part of the same trajectory. If we were to tell you Neeson punches a wolf several times this might reinforce that idea – substituting Taken’s Eurovillains for an assailant with decidedly sharper teeth. It turns out, however, that would be a little misleading.
Neeson plays suicidal oil worker Ottway, apparently taking a marital separation badly, but, when a plane with him and some co-workers goes down in the Alaskan wilderness he must lead them in a fight for survival against a pack of particularly aggressive killer wolves. The Grey might be pitched as a simple man versus beast affair, but it is a far more interesting film than simply a Jaws knock-off in a fur coat.
Carnahan has a more nihilistic and existential agenda here than simple masculine theatrics. The more reflective segments rest on Neeson, who brings an admirable emotional heft and gravitas. Although he is a man who is perfectly capable of brawling with his lupine foes, he also comforts the dying, ruminates on the nature of fear and the divine and pines for his erstwhile wife. Neeson’s acting skills ground the film with a portentous dread and tension rather than allowing it to cheaply fall back on the toothy scares it easily could have. The wolves take on an identity as a more abstract avatar for the fear of death than simply being teeth and claws.
Carnahan has some nice directorial flourishes, not least with the initial plane crash – a genuinely intense sequence – and the imaginatively concluded dreams of Ottway. The presence of the wolves is also handled very well, delivering an omnipotent sense of approaching doom even when they aren’t snarling in close up. The main problem with The Grey doesn’t come from the more pensive aspects of the script, many of which are delivered well by Neeson and his co-stars – even if the poem repeated by Ottway throughout maybe doesn’t sound as fatefully inspiring as it purports to be. The problem is that it doesn’t decide to go far enough down this path.
It is quite likely The Grey will prove a bit too talkative and concerned with personal metaphysics to satisfy multiplex audiences looking for fur to fly. On the other hand, anyone going in wanting more than it says on the tin will be pleasantly surprised, but a little frustrated at the end product.
By giving undue deference to survivalist action tropes, or lacking the inventiveness to subvert them, the film sags under their weight. Our protagonists’ decisions don’t always seem terribly logical and they all fit into familiar character roles. There are not many character arcs that surprise. An initial confrontation with the wolf pack is meant to be chilling, but as their eyes light up in the darkness like fairy lights you may find yourself simply rolling your own. As the standard group members are episodically picked off, every plot signpost and character death is inescapably visible several blood-soaked pawprints away.
The Grey is an enjoyable film with several elements that clumsily combine to deliver an entertaining enough couple of hours. Although a more interesting film than the premise might hint at, it unfortunately lacks enough inspiration in its construction and progression to make it greater than the sum of its parts.
Best line: ‘I’m going to start beating the shit out of you in the next five seconds!’
Watch this if you liked: Alive, The Edge, Taken.