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Liam Neeson (Schindler’s List, Taken) stars as the unlikely hero Ottway in this undeniably suspenseful and powerful survival adventure. After their plane crashes into the remote Alaskan wilderness, a roughneck group of oil drillers is forced to find a way back to civilization. As Ottway leads the injured survivors through the brutal snow and ice, they are relentlessly tracked by a vicious pack of rogue wolves that will do anything to defend their territory. Adrenaline-fueled, action-packed and loaded with some of the most intense and brutally realistic attack scenes ever filmed, The Grey is being hailed as “a thriller you can sink your teeth into!” (The Washington Post)
The plane crashes (boy, does it crash) in the remote Alaskan nowhere, and the rough-and-tumble oil wildcatters who survive must fight their way to safety. That in itself might be enough from which The Grey could fashion a suspenseful thrill-ride, but the movie has one more ace up its sleeve. Wolves! A pack of them, starving and considerably irritated that these outsiders have blundered into their territory. And while it is true that most real-world wolves are hardly man-eaters, director Joe Carnahan and cowriter Ian Mackenzie Jeffers are really not all that interested in reality. Despite some hair-raising moments and a healthy spattering of gore, The Grey is an existential action picture, and the wolves function only as all-purpose predator (being computer-generated, they never really look real anyway). What's really at stake are the souls of these men--how they get along together, and how they face death. Yes, there is always something faintly absurd hanging around this movie; it's like a Jack London story adapted by Luc Besson. But out of its pulpy mash, Carnahan extracts something gutsy. It certainly helps that he's got the mighty Liam Neeson on board as the most capable of the survivors; Neeson exudes the kind of authority that the average action hero can only play-act. Dallas Roberts and Dermot Mulroney add color, and Frank Grillo jumps off the screen as the most belligerent of the desperate crew. It's possible for a movie to have an absurd premise yet carve something unexpectedly philosophical out of that: The Incredible Shrinking Man and Rise of the Planet of the Apes come to mind. Add this one to that oddball list. --Robert Horton
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Unfortunately, it's this difference that's going to disappoint most of the audience. The film starts with Liam's melancholic voice-over (which isn't a good sign) and a fairly dim setup of oil-riggers beating the ever-loving out of each other. We then see Liam shooting a wolf, lamenting the loss of his wife and then putting a rifle in his mouth and contemplating sparing us from another 2 hours of this. And it gets more depressing from there when the trip home ends abruptly in a plane crash.
It's at this point that the film's indecision about what it is becomes a real problem. As an action or survival film, Liam guides his band of survivors in the most irresponsible way possible, making mistake after mistake and fundamentally dooming them all to becoming wolf entree. There are some basic errors, such as a stack of shotgun shells packed with his rifle, and anybody who's familiar with wolf behavior is going to be really unhappy at their depiction in this film. Anyone from Alaska is going to be even more unhappy at the depiction of swimming in rapids too.
Also as an action film, the wolves have a supernatural capability to outsmart the survivors and behave more like Spielberg's raptors than any real life wolf. At one point they jump a ravine and the wolfs are waiting with GPS precision. They pick off our band of survivors one at a time, leaving us with intermittent testosterone-fueled in-fighting to pass as drama. If only Liam hadn't left the crash site, where rescue teams would already have arrived with burgers and cocoa.
But here's the problem - it's not an action film. It's not a survival film either. It's a psychological drama about facing death where the wolves act as furry metaphors for the grim reaper. From the very first scene to the last, Liam Neeson (who's very good as always) emphasizes this theme and it reverberates over and over. And that's where the film could have been quite good and a welcome break from the survival genre but unfortunately it's too late by the time it becomes clear that the wolves' uncanny supernatural sense has a very good explanation.
My guess is that the everyone expecting an action drama is going to be very unhappy, along with animal rights, PETA, Alaskans and oil-riggers. It's a real shame they didn't recut the trailer before the release.
As the movie begins, Ottway (Liam Neeson) narrates a letter he's writing to his wife. This segment just made me realize what my life is lacking most right now and that's a Liam Neeson voiceover for every thought that crosses my mind. Think about that. It'd be the most amazing thing ever. The trailer reveals a few major things: that Ottway is stranded in the middle of nowhere in the blistering cold thanks to a plane crash and that wolves stand in the way of him actually surviving this ordeal. The plane crash itself is one of the best executed in recent memory. The way it's filmed and edited is downright ruthless. It's as if you're on the plane as it goes down. The Grey doesn't just place you in this blizzard-ridden hell infested with wolves, it kicks your teeth down your throat, laughs in your face, and throws you into it with everything it has.
The movie gives new meaning to some of the simplest things. Seeing your breath in cold weather takes on an entirely new definition and the way The Grey deals with death just feels incredibly powerful. Ottway questions faith right from the start and takes matters into his own hands throughout the movie. The events that transpire take a toll on even the most religious plane crash survivors. Death is more of a relief than something worth distancing yourself from. Ottway describes it as being a warm sensation and thinking about the thing you love most in life before completely giving yourself into it. Many of the campfire conversations are entirely more impactful than they have any right to be. The conversation about faith in general hits you like a potato sack full of cinder blocks.
The Grey manages to shout its message even when there's nothing being said on-screen. One of the images that stuck with me long after the movie ended was the shot of blood flowing into the paw print of a wolf in the snow. There's a scene by the river that strictly relies on sound and the way you succumb to it is nothing more than brilliant. There's another shot at the end of the film where (and I'm trying to avoid spoilers the best I can) Ottway is arranging some objects in the snow. The way Liam Neeson's fat, sausage-like fingers delicately wrap themselves around these objects and the way his hands tremble as he does this illustrates not only what this man has been through, but also that he's at the end of his rope. Plus the movie will make you want to look over your shoulder the next time you consider relieving yourself out in nature somewhere.
That level of greatness The Grey eventually achieves isn't around at all times. Some lame dialogue does squeak through and characters manage to do really stupid things at times (John Diaz, played by Frank Grillo, especially), but that seems to help the movie more than anything. People, real people, occasionally do stupid things especially when they're scared. So this kind of made the characters feel more genuine and made it very clear that certain characters were caving under pressure.
There was a movie that came out back in 2000 that was called Vertical Limit. It was one of my most trying times at the movie theater. I fought vehemently to leave about halfway through because I hated it so much, but I was with people at the time who wanted to stay until the end. It was probably one of the worst experiences I've ever had to pay for. The Grey is basically everything I wanted that movie to be. The cast is fantastic, their actions are mostly believable, and there's this meaning to everything that really speaks to you.
The Grey is a grainy thriller that knocks the wind out of you on more than one occasion. In fact, it's rare that the movie actually allows you to catch your breath. Everything is such a raw, vicious, and brutal test of faith. It's fantastically violent and Liam Neeson is superb. If The Grey is anything to fall back on, then 2012 is going to be one hell of a year for movies.