Having vented unparalleled amounts of psychotic aggression against humanity in Taken and Unknown, Liam Neeson has decided to take on Mother Nature herself. But while the teaser trailer seemed to portray The Grey as “Wolf Fighter 2000”, it’s actually a measured and disquietingly poignant action movie set in a bleak Alaskan wilderness.
Neeson plays John Ottway (not to be confused with cult singer-songwriter John Otway), a hunter paid by a petroleum company to stop wolves from killing the employees. At the end of the season he boards a plane with his co-workers only for a storm to cause it to crash, forcing him and six survivors to face the prospect of trekking back to civilization without freezing to death. But they also have a more immediate problem – they’ve stumbled into the killing range of a pack of wolves which isn’t going to let them leave.
Neeson is perfectly cast as a grizzled wolf hunter /expert and thanks to his previous recent form, you’ll have no trouble believing that he could follow through on his threats to a member of the party who gets out of line as well as his Ray Mears/Arnie-in-Predator–esque schemes to keep the pack off their backs.
He also tells a sad and evocative back story which slowly unfolds in the film’s campfire scenes which is judged just the right side of embarrassingly cheesy. He’s ably supported by Frank Grillo, Dermot Mulroney and Dallas Roberts as more measured survivors and the dialogue, banter and black humour that develops between the team is believable and genuine.
Joe Carnahan also marshals his direction well, particularly in the early spectacular plane crash scene which is effectively terrifying. The cinematography too is very impressive with huge sweeping snow-strewn vistas, glorious snow-capped mountains and seemingly endless miles of forest which help to reinforce the isolation that these men are up against.
Unfortunately, the wolves are so obviously CGI creations that it’s hard to really share in the team’s sense of dread (unless you characterise them as a metaphorical force)and the attacks, while brutal are shot in shaky cam, so it’s frustratingly difficult to tell what’s going on. Neeson’s character, for the most part a believable source of wolf-related insight and knowledge also stretches credibility to breaking point when he manages to convince his teammates to take a running leap off a cliff into a tree – a move of stunning illogic which will prompt unintentional laughs.
At 120 minutes, it’s also a good 20 minutes too long and starts to lose momentum, dragging its feet through the final act, but despite these flaws, The Grey is enjoyably bleak and surprisingly compelling, a Nietzschean action flick which at least has the courage to follow through on its convictions.