Neeson Dances With Wolves in 'The Grey'
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
First things first: In "The Grey," Liam Neeson -- who was never exactly my most likely candidate for an action-hero career second act, but good for him anyway -- continues kicking ass and not taking names. Making the not-taking-names part even more practicable is the fact that most of the asses he's kicking belong to wolves. And not wolves with a lean and hungry look, either: The wolves of this movie, residents of ultra-hinterlands in parts of Alaska even Sarah Palin has probably not heard of, are large, often smeary-looking monsters that look to be combinations of animatronics and CGI-animated beasts. Not Jack London wolves.
This man-versus-nature tale is not wholly a face-off between Neeson's character and rapacious lupine predators. It's also an existential tale, and stuff. Neeson's character, Ottway, is an expert critter eliminator protecting the human employees of an oil concern in the Great White North from stray sharp-toothed beasties. His fellow roughnecks are, Ottway notes in a letter to a lost love, "ex-cons, fugitives, drifters, a--holes; men unfit for mankind." And Ottway himself considers himself unfit for life itself. Shortly after composing that letter, he aims to off himself, but can't get the job done.
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Instead he winds up on a plane with some of those roughnecks, and the plane crashes (in a very effective sequence for this oft-reluctant flier) and Ottway finds himself leading fewer than a dozen of his fellow snowbound survivors. Not only do they have to fight the elements, but there's what you might call a buttload of wolves to fend off/kill as well, and the rest of "The Grey" mines a deep "and then there were" X-number seam of plot, hewing of course to the device of keeping the most annoying member of the troupe (here played by Frank Grillo) alive the ...
Oh wait. This is one of those movies for which an in-depth discussion really requires giving away significant chunks of the plot, which has become, these days, a kind of no-no for the consumer-oriented review. Oh, what to do? Well, I will say that "The Grey" represents a welcome change for director and co-writer Joe Carnahan, a filmmaker whose theatrical feature output has toggled all over the place, quality-wise, while staying firmly in the masculine realm, genre-wise. The truly excellent cop thriller "Narc" showed what he could do when he stuck to his guns and guts, while facile smug tripe like the meretricious "Smokin' Aces" showcased the director's most pandering side. "The Grey" certainly doesn't lack for testosterone bluster -- the movie's got a practically all-male cast, after all. But the picture makes to examine that quality more than celebrate it, and also tries to come to terms with what one really needs, steely attitude aside, to survive in an environment in which literally everything is against you. And it also grapples with what it means to survive in such an environment.
Sounds heavy, no? And indeed it is. Neeson practically revels in the heaviness, and why not? His Ottway is a far more interesting, and better-realized, character than the glowering vengeance machines he played in "Taken" and "Unknown." The excellent actors in the small ensemble, including Dermot Mulroney, Dallas Roberts and James Badge Dale, also do excellent work in squaring off with each other in between, um, dances with wolves. And while some of the effects work is a little obvious, the film does a largely first-rate job of simulating the punishing environment the characters have to push against.
Still (and here's where people who object to even implicit potential spoilers in movie reviews should definitely stop reading), my biggest takeaway from "The Grey" was a question, which was "Can a movie actually have too much integrity?" Carnahan and co-writer Ian Mackenzie Jeffers (whose short story "Ghost Walker" was the basis for the script) do not steer the tale away from a particular place, and that place is one that studio execs and screenwriting "coaches" generally do not like. It's a place that's arguably worth going to, but I have to admit that it brought me up short. Which was surprising. Maybe I'm really a shallower person than I'd like to think I am. See the film and you'll understand what I mean.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.