I’m not sure at one point in his career that Liam Neeson transitioned into a grizzled action star, but I’m glad it happened. I suppose Taken was the big movie that kicked off his ass-kicking career, but early warning signs can be traced all the way back to his heavily scarred work in the underrated 1990 faux comic book movie Darkman.
Regardless, the man has now taken up the elderly Harrison Ford’s mantle as the grizzled aging action hero who doesn’t want to beat up swarms of bad guys, but will do it if he has too damn it. Leeson’s latest stab and action heroics just might be his best outing in the genre. The Grey is one of those unrelenting survival thrillers about guys trapped in the middle of nowhere with little resources struggling to survive. It’s a formula that’s pretty hard to fuck up and with the supremely underrated director Joe Carnahan in charge, it’s one hell of a ride. If you’re looking to escape the unforgiving January cold with a movie that’ll get your blood boiling, this is the one.
Neeson stars Ottway a member of an Alaskan oil drilling team who has the undeniably badass job of shooting wolves with a sniper rifle if they try to attack the crew (and with it being Neeson in the role, he’s also haunted by a painful past. That man’s gotta brood after all). The group of rough and tumble societal rejects pile into a plane for a flight home that unfortunately makes an unexpected early stop when it plummets into the artic tundra. Only Neeson and a handful of bearded tough guys survive and with no rescue crew in sight, they face a long walk back to civilization. Unfortunately the plane also crashed in the middle of a wolf den, so within minutes a pack of wolves start circling and picking off survivors one by one. Talk about a tough situation. Good thing Neeson thrives under stress in action star mode. Since he knows a bit about wolves, he becomes the ever-dwindling group’s leader as they struggle to make it home. Spoiler alert: things don’t go well.
Its all pretty simple “man against nature” stuff, but done incredibly well. It’s what would happen if Alive and The Edge had a baby, pumped it full of steroids and forced Neeson’s character from Taken to star in it against his will. Weird analogy? Absolutely, but also an accurate one. This is a grueling experience in the best possible sense. From the opening scenes with a suicidal Neeson haunted by the woman he loves, the film is a harsh experience that co-writer/director Carnahan manages to make worse with each passing second. Many characters die, but rarely arbitrarily. Without forcing in weepy back stories, Carnahan makes you care for every member of his motley crew, then cruelly kills them off unexpected by carnivorous wolves or impossibly harsh physical conditions. The Grey is a visceral experience and you’ll come out feeling drained in a good way.
Joe Carnahan might not be a name you’ll instantly recognize, but you should. The man has been cranking out some of the most underrated and pulse-pounding thrillers and action movies for a decade now. He started with the harsh crime drama Narc, got more lighthearted with his bullet-spraying in Smokin Aces, and then made the leap to Hollywood with the surprisingly decent and entertaining A-Team adaptation. The Grey returns him to the harsh themes and action of Narc with wonderful results. Carnahan knows how to build tension and shock audiences at will, but never sacrifices characterization in the process. He’s kind of like a John Carpenter for the shakey-cam era, cranking out unapologetic B-movies that are better than they should be. The Grey should feel tired and repetitive, yet his handing of the material is so deft with an incredible sense of pacing that you’ll never think of how similar it is to other survival movies while you’re wrapped up in the drama. Unfortunately, Carnahan does uncharacteristically start taking himself a little too seriously in the third act that’s slighty bogged down by characters caught in an existential crisis as a result of their impossibly harsh circumstances. The movie slows down a little bit when it should go into high gear and ends on a perhaps inappropriately ambiguous note, but fortunately the director doesn’t stray too far up his ass into artistic pretension. The film still works quite well as a whole, I just can’t help but feel it was one finale rewrite away from being a survivalist classic.
As you’d expect Neeson is a perfect exhausted and tough as nails lead. The rest of the supporting cast are bearded unknowns (other than Dermot Mulroney), but all play their various tough guy personas well. This is a big time guy movie best enjoyed with a group of buddies, a round of beer, and massive bloody steaks consumed with your bare hands. Tragically, that isn’t allowed in most movie theaters, so popcorn will have to suffice for now. It’s not an earth-shattering contribution to cinema that will forever change the genre, but it is one of the better meat-and-potatoes action movies to emerge in a while. The concept is sound, the script is tight, the acting is solid, the direction is full of surprises, and thankfully even the occasional use of CGI is well-handled. It would be a mistake to set your expectations too high, but if you’re just looking for B-movie thrills, you’ll have a damn good time. Unfortunately there are less Liam Neeson vs. wolf fistfights than the trailer suggests, but don’t worry it happens.