A thriller to sink your teeth into
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, Jan. 27, 2012
On its face, "The Grey" looks like yet another Liam Neeson action movie that has become de rigeur since his 2008 breakout hit, "Taken." But even within its first several minutes, Joe Carna-han's man-against-nature thriller takes on contours and shadings far more sophisticated than the usual pulp programmer.
Neeson plays John Ottway, a sharpshooter who works for an oil company in Alaska keeping gray wolves and other predators at bay. As "The Grey" opens, Ottway is moodily obsessing on the wife from whom he's separated, writing her a letter that, at one point, seems poised to become a suicide note.
It doesn't, and soon Ottway and his fellow he-men are on a plane bound for civilization. The plane won't make it, leaving Ottway and six others marooned in the middle of a blank, icy wasteland with sub-zero winds, punishing snowstorms and packs of hungry wolves all howling for their vulnerable human flesh.
Such pure, elemental motivations and obstacles could easily provide the makings of a brutish but viscerally effective B-movie, but Carnahan - whose past macho efforts span the spectrum from the highly regarded "Narc" to the execrable "A-Team" - aspires to something more in "The Grey," and he largely achieves it. He exploits Neeson's ineffable combination of imposing physical strength and sensitivity, and he surrounds his leading man with a terrific ensemble of character players, including Dermot Mulroney, Dallas Roberts, Joe Anderson, Nonso Anonzie, Ben Hernandez Bray and Frank Grillo, who as a hothead named Diaz owns some of the movie's finest - and goriest - moments.
Director Carnahan knows his way around action beats, pacing and staging them with maximum effectiveness. But he also infuses "The Grey" with surprising emotional heft, not only by way of Ottway's ruminations on lost love, but on the men's fireside conversations about God, mortality, masculinity, sex and fatherhood. (One of the film's many genuinely touching sequences comes early on, after the plane accident, when a bunch of roughnecks cry like babies, one of them delivering a tender kiss as a comrade dies.)
At its core, of course, "The Grey" is all about those wolves, whose glowing nighttime eyes and huge, hulking forms occasionally make them seem as if they're being played by refugees from the "Twilight" movies. Even with its requisite amount of hokum, though, "The Grey" executes its battle of the alpha-males with toughness, efficiency and even artistry, as Ott-way's long, unspeakably difficult slog reaches a conclusion that is anything but foregone.
Which reminds me: Even if you'll miss an earlier Metro home, stay through the credits. It's worth catching a later train.