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REVIEW: "The Grey" Provides Thrills But Not Twists

Michael Chasin |
January 23, 2012 | 11:39 p.m. PST


Liam Neeson plays a professional wolf killer in "The Grey." (Open Road Pictures)
Liam Neeson plays a professional wolf killer in "The Grey." (Open Road Pictures)
Ever since the highly successful "Taken" (2008), Liam Neeson has ironed out a niche in the public consciousness as the go-to actor for the role of the hardened specialist who will do whatever he needs to for the mission at hand.This character is most at home in high-tension, low-intelligence thrillers meant to provide around a hundred minutes of visceral satisfaction before being entirely forgotten. 

It would be easy to assume "The Grey," in which Neeson plays a professional wolf killer, is the slightest, most ridiculous of these offerings to date. Fortunately, and despite what the film’s marketing might have you believe, that’s not the case.

Instead, director Joe Carnahan ("Smokin’ Aces," "The A-Team") took a somewhat lackluster premise and fashioned it into a gripping survival thriller that gives an enthralling, bleak, and ultimately inspiring look at what the human spirit can do when pushed to its limits.

Neeson plays Ottway, a man who protects oil-drilling teams by killing wolves with a sniper rifle. It’s probably safe to assume this is a fictitious trade. He’s at the end of his rope and emotionally scarred by memories of better days with his wife, but you probably could have guessed all that. His backstory, or at least the parts of it that we’re shown, aren’t particularly original. And they don’t have to be. The details accomplish what they need to, providing sufficient evidence that Ottway is in pain and doesn’t have much of a reason to keep on living.

That is until the plane carrying all of the drillers crashes in the Alaskan wilderness, leaving a handful of survivors to last as long as they can until some kind of a rescue comes. An intimate battle of man vs. nature ensues as the group dwindles to the elements and, more pressingly, a vicious wolf pack out to purge its territory of any and all outsiders.

From this point the film could easily devolve into a complete mess, an ice-swept slasher flick with rabid canines standing in for the killer, and at times the contrived underpinnings of the narrative do shine through. Yet Carnahan largely avoids careening into the kind of over-the-top nonsense audiences might be expecting, thanks in no small part to the talented cast.

Each member of the ensemble is able to deliver upon what the script calls of them, especially Frank Grillo ("Prison Break," "Mother’s Day") as Diaz, the requisite naysayer in the group who butts heads with Ottway, and of course Neeson himself dominates the screen as a man who refuses to lie down and die.

And that’s when the film is at its best: When it becomes about exactly how much these men can handle when taken to their breaking point. They survived a plane crash, after all. That should mean something. There must be a reason they’re alive. And yet they still face brutal circumstances, with no salvation in sight. How will they react when their situation refuses to improve?

The answer isn’t the same for all of them, and the few moments when the characters have the opportunity to make a clear choice about how to go on are fantastic. It’s gratifying to see the vulnerabilities of these men’s men rise to the surface, and thankfully the actors are able to deliver the bravado and profanity-laden dialogue with as much believability as the quieter, more contemplative moments that arise when the danger isn’t as immediate.
If you can get past the idea of relentlessly bloodthirsty wolves (animals which in reality rarely show any aggression towards humans) then "The Grey" completely works as a surprisingly introspective and at times even beautiful survival story, with Liam Neeson front and center as a gleaming and grizzled bastion of the human spirit.

And if you can, by all means, please make an effort to avoid the advertising. There isn’t a lot to spoil, but it still manages to show far too much.

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