Saturday, February 4, 2012
I was more than a little disappointed to discover that The Grey is actually a pretty decent movie.
After the supremely enjoyable ridiculousness that was Taken, I was all set to embrace Neeson's recent career shift from dramatic leading man to superhuman killing machine. The trailer featuring Neeson duct-taping broken glass to hands to go mano-a-mano with a pack of killer Arctic wolves promised a level of guilty B-movie jollies that could provide enjoyment for years to come. (I still get a chuckle out of the sheer volume of throat-punching in Taken) Alas, The Grey isn't the silly escapist hoot I expected. It is, however, a convincing and thoughtful Man vs. Nature story with more on its mind than the usual action movie adrenaline.
The Grey sets the tone for its story early. A small plane full of roughneck drillers has just crashed in the Alaskan wilderness. A man lies in the wreckage spurting blood from his abdomen and begging for help. Alpha-male hunter Liam Neeson walks through the clutter of panicked survivors and evaluates the situation before matter-of-factly informing him he is about to die. He then proceeds to gently talk the man through his final moments with whatever small measure of peace he can manage. It's an unexpected, moving scene, and the perfect place-setter for this story, which we gradually realize isn't about survival as much as looking death in the eye.
The more you wade into The Grey's the more uncompromising it is. It may be the most unambiguously atheistic movie since Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors. The Almighty gets name-checked a few times as some of the more optimistic survivors question why they would be spared only to suffer an even worse fate (Of course if God was being a real sport he could have just landed the plane safely) but The Grey is pitiless in showing just how little their planning is worth in the face of an aggressive pack of wolves, brutal weather, and a lack of shelter. The message is clear. You are on your own. Even if God is there, he is most decidedly neutral on the issue of Man v. Wolf.
If I'm making The Grey sounds like unrelenting bleakness let me hasten to add that director Joe Carnahan brings the action goods, repeatedly and effectively. Carnahan is a guy who has been wandering in the cinematic wilderness in recent years cranking out dreck like The A-Team. Here he rediscovers the gravitas that seemed to abandon him after he made Narc a decade ago. He mostly bypasses the cranked up action movie nonsense, stripping the material down to raw essentials. The special effects aren't going to send anybody out into the parking lot gasping, "How'd they do that?" but they get the job done within their limitations, developing the wolves, Jaws-style, as a largely unseen threat. And there a few set pieces that justify full ticket price including a singularly bad plan for crossing a chasm, as well as one of the most harrowing plane crashes ever put to film.
I should pull back a little here. Maybe I'm getting carried away. This isn't Hemingway and Carnahan is not completely immune to convention. It's still safe to assume any character who takes a break from keeping watch to take a leak is not long for this world, and the wolves are careful to eliminate survivors at the traditional one-at-a-time horror film pace. The characters are not much more than the standard issue ragtag gang, each with their own bit of fireside backstory, so we can care when they get ripped to pieces. But even in this the movie is better than it needs to be. The dialogue, if perfunctory, is never bad and gets the job done with a minimum of fuss, and the ensemble elevates the material with subdued, lived-in performances.
As for Liam Neeson what is there to say? He is invaluable in movies like this. Teetering on edge of suicide at the start of the film, then ready to bare-knuckle box nature itself when it tries to snatch his life from him, his silent scowling intensity is the fuel that films like this run on. Without him it's the story of a bunch of men who would have been better off dying in a plane crash. With him it's the story of how Mother Nature picked a fight with the wrong Irishman. And even if the movies have finally produced an adversary he can't throat punch into submission, Neeson makes the Man vs. Nature fight more even than it has any right to be.
Verdict: The Grey is a solid action adventure film that treats its story and characters with seriousness. I expect mass audiences will be surprised by the mercilessness with which it approaches the material, but for those who don't need sugarcoating it makes for an exciting and ultimately rewarding trip to the movies. Having said that, I have to confess that I still think The Grey would've been a lot more fun it if it were a whole lot worse. 7 out of 10