Review: The Grey (15) / Director: Joe Carnahan / Screenplay: Joe Carnahan, Ian Jeffers / Starring: Liam Neeson, Dermot Mulrooney, Joe Anderson, James Badge Dale / Release date: Out now
Liam Neeson has been reinventing himself as a bit of an action hero over the last few years, courtesy of the madcap European kidnap caper Taken to last year's identity conspiracy thriller Unknown via The A-Team (but let's not talk about that one).
It seems that Neeson's the go-to Irish guy for two-fisted punch-up movies when Colin Farrell's otherwise engaged. Neeson's reunited with A-Team director Carnahan in a much more competent, well-crafted horror thriller (with scarcely a punch-up in sight) set in the wilds of Alaska. It cleverly combines its core narrative about a group of plane crash survivors being stalked and killed by ravenous wolves with a well-mined dramatic vein which borders on the philosophical (and even the existential) in its quieter moments as it examines the nature of death, the meaning of life and Man's almost supernaturally powerful drive to survive, whatever the cost and however dire the circumstances.
Things don't bode well for Liam Neeson's John Ottway right at the start of The Grey when, as his rough-and-ready oil rig-crew comrades are knocking seven bells out of one another in a bar whilst waiting for a flight to take them back home to their families, he wanders off into the night and puts the barrel of his rifle into his mouth, so devastated is he by his own personal family tragedy. Only the howl of a distant wolf causes him to pause and think again... Taking off in the middle of a wild Alaskan blizzard, it's not long before the plane carrying Ottway and his mates is in trouble and soon it's down, its wreckage ablaze, twisted bodies spewed across the snow. Ottway gathers together a handful of bewildered survivors but before they can gather their wits they're under attack by the hostile, hungry wolves who watch from the woods, jaws drooling, their eyes glittering in the dark. Oo-er...
The turnabout in Neeson's character is remarkable. Suddenly he's got something to live for, stranded in the wilderness miles away from civilisation, and he emerges as the natural leader of the group, trying to keep one step ahead of the wolves and fending off their frequent and bloody attacks. Ottway is worlds away from Neeson's usual controlled, urbane heroes; he's a damaged, crushed man who finds that he's suddenly got everything to live for - even if it involves just keeping his colleagues alive when Nature throws everything she can in their way to bring them down. Most of Neeson's supporting characters remain little more than sketches, wolf fodder ready to be slowly picked off as the situation gets more and more desperate. But this is no Final Destination style festival of gore; many of the wolf attacks are filmed in extreme close-up, a confusion of slavering fangs and fur and blood which leaves us in no doubt about the brutality of the battles being fought even if we can't make out all the details. When the wolves claim a victim it's nasty and vicious, bodies dragged away in the snow or else torn apart by the pack. Carnahan and Jeffer's script pauses occasionally to allow the characters to indulge in a bit of philosphical small-talk around campfires - the only moments when the film tends to idle a bit too much (apart from the surfeit of flashbacks to Ottway in happier times) - but it's not long before there's some new danger and The Grey's most hair-raising moment doesn't involve wolves at all, but rather in a nail-biting sequence where the survivors use a makeshift lashed-together 'rope' bridge across a ravine to cross from a cliff to the trees on the other side.
What's especially interesting from a human perspective about The Grey is its attitude to death and the acceptance of its inevitability. Not long after the crash Ottway almost encourages one broken passenger to embrace the coming darkness and we're with him as he expels his last breath. Elsewhere characters just slip away or else they face the end with courage, fortitude and a peaceful resignation. Ottway, the one character who seemed to crave detah at the start of the film, is the one who ends up most determined to live, at one point even begging God for a sign such is his desperation and sense of hopelessness.
On a purely technical level The Grey is a slick and accomplished effort. The wolves are achieved via an undetectable mix of real animals, animatronics and subtle CGI and there's clearly no lazy green screen at work here as Ottway and his gang trudge through thick snowdrifts and brace themselevs against ferocious blizzards in what's clearly a real-world location not some cosey Hollywood soundstage. No cheesy 3D required here either; the sense of freezing isolation almost leaps out of the screen. Carnahan's direction is much more assured here than his brazen, unsubtle work in The A-Team and he brilliantly captures the stark, almost alien Alaskan landscapes and his co-written script affords Neeson the opportunity to create a very different sort of hero figure and it's an opportunity the actor clearly relishes, giving Ottway more light and shade than some of his more mundane, over-written recent roles.
The Grey is a taut, gripping and sometimes gruelling movie experience, a survivalist drama with real edge and, in its final moments - you'll have seen the sequence in the trailer and, like me, you'll be wondering what happened to it - it offers another rare example of Hollywood opting out on the easy way out and leaving the audience with uncomfortable questions to be answered - even if we know what those answers probably are. The first must-see movie of 2012...
Expected rating: 7 out of 10