The Grey is what I like to call a “Liamsploitation” film. It stars Liam Neeson as a grim, assertive old man, unfazed in the midst of dangerous circumstances. He kicks ass while everyone else runs or cowers. Those two sentences could just as easily describe “Taken,” “Unknown” and “The A-Team,” other films where Neeson’s star persona is used to play up action tropes.
But be warned: if you enter “The Grey” expecting to see Taken, Pt. II, you will be disappointed. That’s not to say it is a bad movie. On the contrary: it’s the first great film I’ve seen of 2012, a brutal, brooding thriller sadly marketed as brainless escapism.
Neeson plays Ottway, a marksman for an Alaskan oil company charged with picking off wolves that attack his team. The men he protects are predominantly criminals, drunkards and young firebrands that fight and boast about how many women they sleep with. “Men unfit for humanity,” Ottway intones in the film’s opening voice-over.
As he boards the plane home with his teammates, Ottway is despondent. He has just considered suicide and written a letter to a woman he loves but is unable to see for mysterious reasons. It isn’t until the airplane crashes in the middle of the frozen wilderness that Ottway’s spark for life is renewed against a backdrop of ravenous wolves and treacherous terrain.
It’s Man vs. Nature, obviously, mixed with a little Man vs. Man”as Ottway is joined by a pack of ragtag survivors that include the quietly religious Talget (Dermot Mulroney), the bristly ex-con Diaz (Frank Grillo) and the twitchy playboy Flannery (Joe Anderson). Neither conflict is unfamiliar to the world of fiction. Yet “The Grey” distinguishes itself from the pack with a third conflict, one not so easily defined but just as pressing, perhaps more so, as anything in the physical world: Man vs. Existence.
While trekking through the forest in search of rescue, the survivors grapple with the big questions: why brave unbearable odds for the most infinitesimal chance of survival? Is it because of faith? A loving family? Biological instinct? If one has to die, how can they do it gracefully? Early on, in one of mainstream cinema’s gutsiest moments, Ottway informs a fatally injured member of the plane that he is doomed to die, consoling him as he fades. “It’ll slide over you,” he whispers. Not a breath stirred in the theater watching that scene. People die in movies all the time, but like this, so chillingly real?
Ottway, though ostensibly agnostic with an atheist slant, wavers continually as conditions worsen. A poem his father wrote, modeled after Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” becomes a bittersweet motif, an acknowledgment of mortality as much as the human will to live.
That’s not to say The Grey is all metaphysical pondering and no visceral thrills. Not since Carpenter’s “The Thing” has a blizzard on screen seemed to reach out and affect the audience so vividly. Masanobu Takayanagi’s cinematography paints the Alaskan landscape with the appropriate mix of overexposure and dullness. The actors trudge through the snow with agonizing heft. We don’t doubt for a moment the dangers they face.
The wolves are mostly CGI, big, wet-furred and snarling, but the least impressive of the film’s spectacles. The moments before the plane crash are a case study in cinematic build-up. The audience knows where the film is leading us, so it takes time: the growing turbulence, the flickering screens and engine leaks … a post-9/11 nightmare playing out minute-by-minute.
Often the environment seems more menacing than its monsters. Two set pieces involving heights and river rapids test the characters as much as the viewer. Be thankful, after “The Grey,” that you may never experience the same as these men.
“The Grey” challenges the viewer to enter with an open mind. It represents the most mature outing by director Joe Carnahan (“Smokin’ Aces,” “The A-Team”). It is not without moments of levity, however, and through all the existential and survival angst it remains a ‘Liamsploitation’ flick. Neeson maintains his cool and shows more rationale than anyone else in the film. His persona is a fantasy of sorts, the man we want to be in a similar situation. One thing The Grey taught me: Liam Neeson is the man I want at my deathbed, hand on my arm, whispering, “It’ll slide over you.”