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It's man vs. beast, with Liam Neeson in the lead
Originally published on Thu January 26, 2012 2:00 pm
Pity the foolhardy wolf that gets in Liam Neeson's way. At least, that's the primary message in the trailer for the latest entry in this most curious period of the Oscar-nominee's career, which finds him more often than not furrowing his brow in anger and then beating the source of his ire to a bloody pulp.
To wit: The coming-attractions reel for The Grey showcases Neeson securing shattered single-serve liquor bottles to his knuckles with electrical tape while a massive, snarling gray wolf awaits their alpha vs. alpha death match. This movie, it would appear, is looking for the same gravitas-laced trash appeal that made Neeson's over-the-top revenge fantasy Taken such a guilty pleasure.
But that's just the marketing spin: The Grey has more than a few surprises in store. It has its excesses, true, and Neeson does do his fair share of looking tough and taking out big bad wolves. But both star and writer-director Joe Carnahan have done better this time than in their last joint effort, the execrable time-waster The A-Team.
Neeson plays John Ottway, a roughneck working the northern Alaska oil rigs; he's tasked with keeping watch with a sniper rifle, taking out any wildlife dangers that might stalk the men on the oil fields. Carnahan has him introduce his line of work in an opening voiceover that, in its grimly matter-of-fact yet stoically poetic tone, sounds like an outtake from Werner Herzog's recent Antarctic documentary. As Ottway muses, it's a "job at the end of the world," populated by "men unfit for mankind."
With the studied efficiency of a man who knows that his audience showed up to see Neeson glass-knuckle-boxing with wolves, Carnahan quickly establishes Ottway as a sad loner, his wife long gone, with no will to live outside of his role as camp protector.
But remarkably, once the plane Ottway boards in the first few minutes goes down in arctic Alaska — leaving just seven men to survive the elements and the vicious territoriality of the local wolf pack — Carnahan doesn't give us quite the tough-guy action spectacle we might expect. In its place is a stark and contemplative downcast film that is willing to sit remarkably still for an action film, and willing to deny some of the audience's blood lust by turning the camera away at key moments.
It's far from perfect, let's note. Carnahan, working from a script that he and writer Ian Mackenzie Jeffers adapted from Jeffers' short story "Ghost Walkers," paints everything with a broad archetypal brush. The seven survivors fit neat categories, from the quiet pragmatist Hendrick (Dallas Roberts) to Talget (Dermot Mulroney), the surprisingly sensitive father who just loves his little girl back home, to Diaz (Frank Grillo), the chest-puffing ex-con afraid of nothing. Carnahan telegraphs the order in which the wolves will pick them off with how much each respective man has to learn or to lose.
As for the wolves, Carnahan isn't looking to make an effects-driven film, so the digitally created beasties are often off-camera. Keeping them largely hidden in the shadows allows him to keep the film to a modest budget while still making them a frightening force of evil. Slightly too evil, in fact: In trying to create parallels between the wolf pack and the interactions of the men in their own "pack," Carnahan blatantly anthropomorphizes the animals to the point where their behavior seems far too calculated.
Still, The Grey has a certain muscular pull: It's a tough-as-nails study of hardened men struggling with the ostensibly conflicting pulls of stoic masculinity on one hand and love, faith and fear of death on the other. It has its own stoic resolve which, combined with the grainy, color-drained cinematography of Masanobu Takayanagi, gives it the feel of something out of the '70s.
Minus some of Carnahan's clumsier inclinations, one could easily imagine this as a lesser but thoroughly enjoyable work from Sam Peckinpah or John Sturges. The movie might not be a vengeance-driven wolf-man cage fight, but in subverting those escapist expectations, it sinks its teeth far deeper and more memorably.