DIRECTED BY: Joe Carnahan
WRITTEN BY: Joe Carnahan, Ian Mackenzie Jeffers
STARRING: Liam Neeson, Dermot Mulroney, Frank Grillo, Dallas Roberts
RUNNING TIME: 117 mins
DISTRIBUTED BY: Open Road Films
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
John Ottway works in Alaska hunting the wolves that threaten an oil drilling team. On his last day on the job, Ottway pens a letter to his wife Ana and plans to commit suicide. While holding his gun to his mouth, however, Ottway hears the howl of a wolf, which stops him. Upon the completion of the job, Ottway and the team embark on a plane, but are caught in a horrendous blizzard and the plane crashes in the middle of nowhere. Ottway wakes up in the snow with the wrecked plane in the distance and just seven other survivors, one of whom soon perishes. It soon becomes apparent that not only are they in the middle of nowhere, but they are in wolf territory, and the wolves see these human intruders as dinner…………
Though I know not everyone agrees with me, I personally love that Liam Neeson has recently got a sort of ‘second wind’ to his career and been reborn as a near-60 year old action star. I actually can’t wait for the sequel to Taken, that movie being my favourite guilty pleasure of 2008. In the meantime though we have The Grey, which is a somewhat different kettle of fish. The trailer showed an image of Neeson battling a wolf, which led me, and probably a great many other people, to expect at least one major scene of the Big Man wasting one or more poor lupines. We’ve had Neeson in Paris and Germany, well now we have him rampaging Alaska dispatching/any foolish wolf that get in his way, yes? Well let me tell you now; you don’t see any of this in the finished film, which is a far more serious affair. Think of The Edge or Flight Of The Phoenix crossed with Open Water or The Reef, but of course substituting wolves for sharks, and that should give you a pretty good idea of what to expect. There isn’t that much that is new, but if you’re a fan of this type of movie, you should find it pretty engrossing.
Immediately, as we open with imposing shots of mountains followed by Neeson’s voice, sounding as grim and downbeat as a narrator from an old film noir, over the sight of him putting a gun in his mouth, you know this is not going to be frivolous fare. It gets off to a very quick start, with the crash occurring within about ten minutes, and there’s a nice restraint here; we don’t see the actual crash, just Ottway awaking from being knocked out and us then seeing the wreckage and the dead bodies. This is also just as well, considering the number of shoddy looking plane crashes we have been submitted to in recent years. The tension arrives very quickly when we see that a wolf pack is after the humans, and is willing to follow them and hunt them down. Now you may very well be aware that wolves rarely actually attack people, don’t actually live in the snow and are nowhere near as intelligent as they appear to be in this film, and you may also wonder why they appear to be the only animals about [perhaps the wolves ate them all?], but hopefully you’ll be so gripped that things like this will only occur to you after the film is over!
Unrealistic though they may be, they are very effective menaces as they follow and gradually kill our protagonists off one by one. Though not shown in much detail, they looked real enough to me, though are at their best when the emphasis is on their scary bright eyes [again, probably brighter than in real life, but never mind, this is a movie], especially in one rather frightening night time scene where the group just sees lots and lots of pairs of eyes staring at them out of the dark, a really nightmarish image. Sadly though, I have to report that the actual wolf attack scenes are totally botched by …..yes….you’ve guessed…..epileptic camera shaking and random one second close ups of wolf teeth, legs, well it’s hard to tell. Director Joe Carnahan almost ruined some great action scenes in The A-Team by shooting them in this manner and certainly ruins many scenes in this one. I just wanted to see one wolf attack properly, especially considering the plentiful blood we see decorating the snow after the killings, but was not allowed to.
Never mind, Carnahan shows skill in some other scenes, such as a very vertiginous rope bit which is even more tense then the one in Cliffhanger and may really make you lose your dinner if you are scared of heights! Brief flashbacks are elegantly blended in without jarring. The film drags a little in the second half, as if it is having trouble keeping up its early momentum, and many have been unsatisfied with the ending, which is very ambiguous. I didn’t mind it, because it’s consistent with the subtext about dealing with death that writers Carnahan and Ian MacKenzie Jeffers have been threading through the story and give it a bit of philosophical depth. There is a really affecting scene near the beginning where Ottway helps someone die a little more happily by saying just the right words. Deaths are so prevalent in the cinema, but this particular little scene really touched me, and considering some of his lines, not to mention a flashback twist revealed towards the end, is it not reading too much into it to relate Neeson’s character to certain tragic events the actor experienced not that long ago? When he’s yelling out at God to just do “something”, I wondered if doing this film was something of a cathartic experience for him.
Cathartic or not, Neeson is excellent, convincingly showing us a broken man regaining some nobility, and sometimes using that great voice of his to its best advantage. Other cast members do a fine job though I couldn’t stop noticing that nobody’s beard seemed to grow during the film. The dialogue is appropriately foul mouthed and dryly humorous, exactly, one feels, how people would talk in that situation. Mark Streitenfeld’s ominous but quite restrained score emphasises long, ambient notes, which sometimes blend into the natural sound of the movie, nicely mixing sound design and music. There is a lot to recommend in The Grey; it’s a little deeper than you might expect and most of the unbelievable aspects [why does the stupid pilot fly over a mountain instead of around it, why is it so easy to run in deep snow, blah blah blah] will probably only come to you as you exit the cinema. A shame the atrocious editing of the attack scenes let it down, but sadly it’s par for the course these days…………