Liam Neeson, the actor best known for playing thoughtful, sometimes heroic men, has somehow managed (in his late 50s, no less) to reinvent himself as a steely-eyed action star in the vein of Clint Eastwood or the late Charles Bronson. Watching him beat the living hell out of absolutely everyone in his path in movies like Taken and Unknown proved more fun than anyone imagined. Because of that, the marketing campaign for The Grey has almost exclusively been focusing on the novelty of Liam Neeson fist-fighting giant grey wolves. However, if the film trailer's shot of him taping broken glass to his hands and charging a wolf is the only thing that has you excited about this movie, then you will likely walk out of the theater disappointed. Director Joe Carnahan had more on his mind than wolf punching.
Neeson is John Ottway, a broken man making a living in the farthest reaches of Alaska by shooting wolves that stray too close to pipeline workers. He doesn't think he deserves a better life and just goes through the motions of existing. When a plane carrying Ottway and a few of his co-workers crashes in the middle of nowhere, he and seven other survivors have to deal with the very real possibility of starving or freezing to death and, more dramatically, a vicious pack of wolves is stalking them, picking off the survivors one at a time. The film is two hours of constant danger that left me drained by the closing credits. It also got me thinking about all kinds of things action movies aren't supposed to care about.
The audience can choose to view the wolves as just wolves and the film as a straight survival story. Alternately, we can view the entire film as a meditation on a man obsessed with his mortality. In that case, the wolves are the symbolic embodiment of death, which forces Ottway to choose between giving up and dying and putting one foot in front of the other and living. Either way, the film is working on multiple levels.
Far from an unstoppable killing machine, Neeson gives his best performance in years as a wounded and emotionally destroyed man trying to decide whether he even wants to survive. All of the acting is lovely, but Neeson bares his soul. But The Grey isn't being advertised as an elegant and fascinating character-driven adventure, it's being sold as a slick action movie featuring Neeson fist-fighting wild animals. Judging from the dozen people behind me in the theater who moaned in disappointment when the credits rolled, this film is going to divide people right down the middle. Half the people are going to think The Grey is an anti-climactic let down, while the other half will view it as a beautiful and almost flawless film. They're both right, in a sense, because the studio is promoting a movie that doesn't exist. However, if you look past your preconceptions and view the movie for what it is, you'll find nothing to complain about.
Directed by Joe Carnahan
Starring Liam Neeson, Frank Grillo, Dermot Mulroney, Dallas Roberts and Joe Anderson.