“The Grey” is the 2012 installment of what has become Neeson’s annual action-movie appearance. (Kimberley French/Open Road Films)

If it’s January, it must be time for Liam Neeson to kick some tush.

Forget the NFL playoffs, presidential primaries and assorted other seasonal signifiers: For filmgoers, Neeson has become as reliable a fixture of bleak midwinter as frosty winds and earth as hard as iron.

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.

Last year, Neeson tried a slightly less pugnacious version of the “Taken” formula with “Unknown,” a pleasingly crafty political-psychological thriller set in Berlin. That smart, twisty man-with-amnesia tale didn’t do nearly as well as “Taken,” but it performed respectably, helping to solidify his niche in the cinematic firmament as both shamanic wise man and take-no-prisoners tough guy.

Both personae show up in full force in “The Grey,” which despite its potential to be merely a pulpy B-movie, packs as much visual ingenuity and emotional meaning as it does raw-boned physical derring-do. Writer-director Joe Carnahan does an impressive job with a series of excruciating set pieces as Neeson’s character — an oil field roughneck named Ottway — leads six men from a crashed plane through a desolate, deadly snowscape. From the superbly staged accident that straps viewers into a disintegrating plane to a breathtaking sequence set high over a raging, icy river, “The Grey” keeps the sometimes graphically gory action beats coming at a crisp pace.

But the moments in between turn out to be just as satisfying, as Ottway and his friends delve into the dynamics of what it means to be a man and what makes a life worth fighting for — all while being howled at by roving gangs of huge, hulking wolves. As the conflict between the wolf pack and human pack comes down to two alpha males, the stakes in “The Grey” have deepened enough to make that final standoff more psychically potent than man-vs.-beast. The setting and fatalistic musings of “The Grey” invite comparison to Sean Penn’s stirring 2007 ad­ven­ture “Into the Wild”; in its more metaphysical moments, told in impressionistic flashbacks, it recalls last year’s “The Tree of Life.”

That “The Grey” is as good as it is can be credited to Carnahan’s filmmaking chops (which, let’s face it, haven’t been evident in such recent outings as “The A-Team”), as well as a supporting cast that includes such terrific actors as Dallas Roberts and Frank Grillo. But the ballast of the film belongs to Neeson, whose ineffable combination of imposing physical strength and sensitivity once again prove that, even pushing 60, the kid’s still got it. A sequel to “Taken” is reportedly filming in Istanbul. With luck, it will be ready by next January — just in time to take our minds off inflation, influenza, inauguration or whatever bleak midwinter ailment is befalling us by then.

The Grey


(117 minutes, at area theaters) is rated
R for violence and disturbing content, including bloody images, and for pervasive profanity.