Fittingly, that moaning wind and unforgiving earth appear as supporting characters in “The Grey,” the 2012 installment of what has become Neeson’s annual action-movie appearance. And, like Neeson, they hit their marks with style in what turns out to be an impressively visceral survivalist tale, the frigid elements given an extra shot of menace from roving packs of hungry wolves as Neeson and a band of plane crash survivors trudge the Alaskan wild in an effort to get (where else?) home.
Part “127 Hours” in a snowstorm, part “Jaws” in a mangy fur coat, “The Grey” epitomizes what audiences have come to expect since Neeson’s breakout action hit “Taken,” which when it was released in early 2009 went on to become a surprise box-office sensation, earning more than $200 million in theaters and on DVD. In that “Bourne”-like action thriller, the now 59-year-old Neeson proved there was hope for the AARP crowd yet, as he mano-a-mano’ed his way across Paris as a ruthless former CIA agent looking for his kidnapped daughter.
He also proved that January doesn’t have to be a month for the dumps — those forgettable movies that Hollywood routinely burns off in early winter rather than waste precious summer or holiday screens on sub-par material.
Three years ago, “Taken” was a tough, efficient genre picture — on its face, just another action movie that Hollywood has long programmed at this time of year as counterprogramming to the more highbrow Oscar hopefuls that tend to dominate theaters. This year, to take their minds off “The Artist,” adrenaline junkies have the nifty “Contraband” and “Haywire,” as well as “The Grey” (and they’re talkies!).
But if “Taken” was in some ways nothing special, it was also good enough at a time when filmgoers were grateful for a movie that, while often lurid and over the top, didn’t completely insult their intelligence. And, according to Phil Contrino, editor of the Web site Boxoffice.com, “Taken” tapped into the zeitgeist in a way the filmmakers never could have expected.
“We were fresh off the economic collapse,” Contrino says, “and moviegoers were looking for escapism and for a revenge flick, because they were so full of hostility and anger about world around them.” It was also the rare action thriller that had “four quadrant” appeal, proving popular with young and old viewers, as well as men and women, in equal measure.
The result, as a grateful Neeson said at the time, was that “Taken” gave the aging actor a “new lease on life” as an unlikely action hero. Then he proceeded to settle comfortably into a bi-level career. Sometimes, he’s played God (he is the voice of Aslan in the “Chronicles of Narnia” films and plays Zeus in the “Clash of the Titans” movies). Sometimes, he channels cool dudes in bone-cracking moods.