Directed by Joe Carnahan
Starring Liam Neeson and wolves
Runtime 117min. - Rated R
3.5 Stars (out of 4)
I'm not especially enthusiastic about action movies. I hate to seem like a crotchety old critic who thinks he's too good for action flicks, but thoughtful ones are few and far between. These days especially, it could be said that the phrase "thoughtful action flick" is an oxymoron. "The Expendables" is the pinnacle of the genre, and that's not high praise.
In sexual terms, "The Expendables" is a premature ejaculation. Bombs and machine guns are constantly firing but there's not enough foreplay to get anyone in the mood. "The Grey" by comparison, is a 2 hour session of Tantric sex. It keeps the heart racing in a frenzied anxiety without any hope for release. The movie creates tension with a Hitchcockian model of suspense. Consider this famous quote from Alfred Hitchcock.
"We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let’s suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, “Boom!” There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: “You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!”
"The Grey" isn't concerned with bombs, but with wolves. These wolves won't ever be starring in a "White Fang" adaptation. They're large, aggressive, and bloodthirsty. These beasts seem to kill for sport as well as food. They attack the living even when there are dozens of freshly deceased bodies lying about. I'm not sure if this is a fair or accurate depiction of the species, but it makes for some fearsome cinematic villains.
The plot is pretty easy to explain. A plane crashes in the arctic and the survivors head for the woods while battling the weather, wolves and sometimes each other. Ottway (Neeson) is one of those survivors, who holds the distinction of being a professional wolf killer. Ottway's survival is the sole piece of good fortune the group encounters.
Liam Neeson carries the film much like he did in "Taken" and "Unknown". I suppose that's why the filmmakers gave the character of Ottway a troubled past. It must have seemed necessary to supply the lead character with an emotional complexity given his importance to the film. Unfortunately that piece of plot is completely useless. The film opens with Ottway considering suicide due to the death of his wife, or maybe she left him. It's so unimportant that I can't remember. Maybe his brush with suicide led him to make a strong commitment to life that fuels his every decision throughout the film, but I just do not fucking care. It all seems pretty trivial when your comrades are getting their heads ripped off by ravenous wolves. I wouldn't consider this background story a negative aspect, but it didn't really add anything of substance.
While there are some survival movie clichés, the gritty nature of the film makes them forgivable. This is not a "love conquers all" kind of story. It's the kind of unflinching, open-ended material that usually repels the casual movie-goer. If not for the appeal of Liam Neeson and the promise of bloody wolf attacks, this film may have flopped at the box office. Of course it would have been a very different film if, say, Christopher Walken was the star.
With the recent films "Hanna" and "Salt", action movies seem to be trending upward in quality. "The Grey" is certainly a continuation of that trend. It's a thoughtful film in the sense that it effectively conveys human emotion, even if that emotion is only fear. Plane crashes, wolves, heights and being stranded, "The Grey" invokes many fears. So while I'd recommend everyone see the film, I don't expect it to leave them with a warm, fuzzy feeling.