The Grey Review: Liam Neeson Steps Up His Game

We may have turned a few heads here at BWP when we (well, I) put "The Grey" among our 15 most anticipated movies of the year. As much as we're all in agreement about how much Liam Neeson can lift a movie, the subject matter of the film shouldn't exactly strike anyone as award winning, at first glance. When you first look at The Grey, you'll likely see another man vs. nature type of survival film, and while we'll get the odd exception like 127 Hours, that usually means that you're not exactly in for Oscar-quality material.

But even beyond the presence of Liam Neeson (and Neeson definitely had A LOT to do with anything good we have to say about this movie) there was else something about The Grey that drew me to it. And it might not have been the director, Joe Carnahan, better known for over-the-top, stylistic action flicks like Smokin' Aces and The A-Team. It certainly wasn't a cast full of general unknowns or the presence of CGI wolves (not doing so well on the checklist here, are we?). But based on the trailers and everything we had seen and read about The Grey, it seemed like there was something more to it, like it wasn't just about punching wolves in the face. For a while, Carnahan, Neeson, and the production company have been pushing this film pretty hard, more than the normal January release (which tends to be reserved for the crap most studios didn't want to put out during awards season). Carnahan even went as far as to say that Neeson's performance is Oscar-worthy, and that the film would get a late-year re-release to back him up (and that the only reason it was pushed back to January was because of production issues).

Maybe it was just fodder to try and increase the movie's box office and hype. But you know what? I've bought into it. It may not be as good as 127 Hours, it may not be an Oscar-quality film, but The Grey is a great film that's much more than just a simple action or survival movie. It's a movie that philosophizes about the plight of man, about what actions desperate men will take and where they'll draw the line. It's about human connection, about connection to our surroundings, and yes, also about survival and punching wolves in the face.

In the film, Neeson stars as John Ottway, a man who's lost everything and has spent his recent years in a segregated oil refinery in the very northern portion of Alaska, patrolling the perimeter and keeping the workers safe from threats like territorial wolves. His life is basically pointless at this point. He contemplates ending it all, but stops short and soon heads off on leave to Anchorage. The plane, of course, goes down in the middle of nowhere, leaving only a handful of survivors. They build a fire, gather supplies and discuss their options, but they quickly realize they're not alone. Ottway threatens and fights off a timberwolf feasting on a dead body, and that causes the wolves to get defensive and territorial as the victims are just looking to survive.

The group must then travel away from the plane crash towards a tree line, as their numbers inevitably begin to dwindle, if they want to stand any chance of surviving not only the elements and their carnivorous predators, but also each other and themselves.

There should be in an emphasis on that last part, because well beyond and theme of survival or man vs. nature, The Grey presents a surprisingly deep look into the human psyche, about what it means to survive and to be living, as well as a take on the human condition. Ottway has led his life into this situation, and it's up to him to take control and lead himself out, no matter what bogs him down. Nothing that happened before matters anymore. All that matters is surviving, at any and all costs. But the real question is whether Ottway and his companions are even technically alive anymore, considering their situation.

There's no doubt that Joe Carnahan and Ian Mackenzie Jeffers (the author of the short story the film is based on, "Ghost Walker") take some liberties with logic and reality on certain plot points, such as methods of survival and the habits of Alaskan wolves. But it doesn't matter, because as a story, a philosophy, a character drama, The Grey rises well above this and allows us to suspend our disbelief. I would even go as far as to say that the plane crash, the blizzard conditions, the dramatically oversized and ferocious wolves are a metaphor more than anything, that they represents that a man has to overcome in order to find himself and rise to the occasion. So if you're heading to see The Grey, please keep this in mind before complaining about the unrealistic CGI wolves.

That said, Carnahan still has to form a two hour movie, and that means that he has to support these philosophies with action, dialogue, and a semi-believable plot. While the themes of the movie mostly hold up, the film does have its issues. Outside of Neeson's character, as well as Diaz (Frank Grillo), most of the characters come off as wooden, or maybe a means to an end. They're there, basically, to die and push Ottway further along his path (and before you ask, we don't feel bad spoiling the fact that people die in a survival movie). But they also have to interact with Ottway, conserve among each other and offer conflicts and resolutions, and that's an artform that Carnahan hasn't exactly mastered. It certainly doesn't help that most of their dialog seems shallow and irrelevant in the grand scheme of things.

That said, this movie is pretty much all about Liam Neeson and his character, and he does more than enough to hold it all up. His own dialog fits perfectly, and the movie provides him with some excellent character development and moments to shine. Who are we kidding, you're not going to see this movie for Dermot Molruney or Frank Grillo, and the film recognizes and takes advantage of this, giving us as much Liam as physically possible throughout the film. But there are still other actors here, and at times, it just feels as if Carnahan is more concerned with finding unique ways to kill them off rather than build them up through dialog and plot devices. Their characters are mostly there to initiate a reaction out of Neeson when it comes time to see them go.

As for the action, you'd expect a director like Carnahan to be well versed in what an action film needs to entail, but this too tends to fall a little flat. The actors had to work with CGI wolves, which makes for a lot of close ups and dark shots to make up for the lack of a human presence in the form of antagonists. Add that to a few shots that look a little too obviously green-screened, and it does take us out of certain portions of the film. One scene in particular, where the survivors have to shimmy between a mountaintop and a set of trees, suspended 100 feet above the air, didn't really arouse any anxiety at all, because, well, it didn't look very real. But blame that on budgeting.

But beyond these issues, The Grey is still a great movie that dares to be different in a day and age where Hollywood is content with the types of films Carnahan has made in the past. It philosophizes, it raises some serious questions, it makes you think, and it does all of this in some very surprising ways. We won't spoil anything for you here, but from beginning to very end, the film is very emotional and offers plenty of surprises. Even with a lot of cardboard cutout characters, every death does indeed feel significant, as if another piece of our main character is being stripped away. Despite being separated by CGI and special effects, interactions between the humans and the wolves do indeed feel real as well, especially when Carnahan allows them to interact simply through sound or a subtle visual. And there are some real gritty, raw, emotional scenes, including one of the most brutal plane crashes I've seen in film and a very emotional scene with Frank Grillo's character late in the film. Carnahan and Neeson keep us guessing to the very end, with an ending that's quite frankly shocking.

The Grey is not without its issues. In fact, it seems to be stuck somewhere between your typical action flick, and something a lot more emotional and raw. Carnahan makes an attempt to reach the latter, but the simple truth is that he may not have attained that level as a writer or director just yet. But it's a valiant effort, one reinforced by one of the best actors in Hollywood at the moment for something like this, Liam Neeson.

Carnahan's honest effort, Liam Neeson's excellent, possibly award-worthy performance, and some surprising source material and plotting make "The Grey" a must-see film early in the year, and as a result, we're giving it an 8.5 out of 10.

Once more into the fray
Into the last good fight I'll ever know
Live and die on this day
Live and die on this day.