Despite the familiar plot elements and limited imagination, "The Grey" is a grizzly and well-made survival tale, one dripping with intensity and not for the faint of heart. Liam Neeson once again excels as a tough-as-nails hero for a more pragmatic world, anchoring a film that might have buckled without a strong lead performance. It may look like an action-thriller, but "The Grey" is really a horror film at heart and a pretty good one at that. Even if we've seen man vs. wild many times before, it's easy to engage when they're made as well as "The Grey."
"I'm no longer doing any good in this world," our hero Ottway (Liam Neeson) admits early in "The Grey." For him, this realization is as good as a death sentence, and he kneels down in the snow to finish his own life with the help of a rifle. Devastated by a tragedy that took his wife away from him, Ottway thinks he's finished, but he hears a howling wolf off in the distance and decides that just maybe he can find something to live for.
As it turns out, fate has plans for him, and soon he's on a plane that is headed down in a remote portion of Alaska, a place where hardly anyone outside of his fellow oil riggers are willing to venture. Following one of the most intense airplane crash scenes since "Cast Away," Ottway finds himself half-buried in the snow with airplane wreckage all around him. As one of the lucky ones, he's left to gather the few remaining survivors and figure out a way to get everyone saved.
But "The Grey" is more than just a story of plane crash survivors in a frozen tundra; they've already made that movie. Instead, Ottway and his somewhat lucky seven get the bad news that freezing to death isn't the only thing to worry about, as a pack of aggressive man-eating wolves are circling the wreckage and looking to defend their territory. Though they may have survived the plane crash, they are a long way from being rescued.
Luckily for the entire group, Ottway happens to be an expert on wolves, recognizing their habits instantly and knowing what to do when they come swooping in for a stare down. If they're to survive, he tells the group, you need to be able to stand there together and show your confidence. Stranded in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness with a pack of hungry wolves circling, you'll take whatever advice you can get.
With the group in need of some direction, Ottway doesn't take long to prove that he's a natural leader. In a touching early scene, Ottway refuses to give false hope to a man who is beyond saving and gently coaxes him to calmly accept his fate instead of dying frantic and scared. Beyond simply being a wolf expert and MacGyver-like with makeshift weaponry, Ottway is a man who sees a level of mercy in admitting difficult truths, and the group follows as much for his humanity as for his skill in survival.
And holding on to that survival proves to be a difficult thing, as the wolves hover and scheme just out of sight, searching for the weakest of the group. Considering that these wolves may have never even actually seen a human due to the remote location, one might wonder how they got so good at being "man-eaters," but we don't really need these types of answers in a movie like "The Grey." "The Grey" ends up providing just enough dabs of realism to allow us to happily swallow the occasional skip - or leap - in logic, which is the same strategy Steven Spielberg evoked in his popcorn classic "Jaws." Even if "The Grey" is no "Jaws," it still does a compelling job of making us believe that the Alaskan wilderness is just teeming with cold-blooded wolves licking their chops for human blood.
But what it really comes down to is whether or not we buy Neeson as this ultra-tough alpha male, and once again he provides a skilled blend of hard-boiled toughness and underlying sadness. It turns out that Neeson is still perfectly suited for this type of hero and director Joe Carnahan does an excellent job of enhancing the story visually. The Alaskan wilderness is shown as beautiful but also so stark and foreboding that some might be willing to just give up and admit defeat.
Surviving is such a chore in "The Grey" that it even has the audacity to ask whether or not fighting for survival is worth the trouble and is smart enough to not answer. Though "The Grey" isn't nearly as deep as it would like to be, and limited once we figure out it's really just a horror film, there's something to be said about a movie that finds poetry at its conclusion instead of absolution. Backed by some truly intense sequences that should jar those looking for thrills, "The Grey" is one of the best horror films you're likely to see this year.
by RTT Staff Writer
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