“Schindler’s List” actor Liam Neeson has had a questionable run of films lately. Neeson, a fine actor by most accounts, has appeared in many films that don’t quite keep up with his exceptional acting capabilities and fall flat around his typically solid performances.
Films like “Taken,” “Unknown” and even the 2010 “Clash of the Titans” remake all benefited financially from Neeson’s appearance, but stand as critical disappointments in the career of a well-respected actor. Unfortunately for the actor’s admirers, things don’t get much better with his latest film, “The Grey.”
Following in Neeson’s footsteps is “The Grey” director Joe Carnahan, who arrived on the filmmaking
scene with the impressive directorial debut “Narc” and has since helmed the abhorrent action film “Smokin’ Aces” and the unneeded ’80s television series remake “The A-Team.” While early accounts had “The Grey” pegged as a return to form for both Neeson and Carnahan, it proves to be a disappointment.
Following a plane crash that leaves a group of roguish oil drillers stranded deep in the Alaskan wilderness, Ottway (Neeson) assumes the position of leader of the group as he attempts to help them survive the harsh elements of the frigid Alaskan winter and a pack of vicious wolves hot on their trail.
“The Grey” would like to believe it’s also elevating itself above its potentially pulpy premise, which is ultimately the first of many problems for the film.
Interestingly enough, the film starts off rather promising, developing each character within a clever long take set in the dingy bar they inhabit on an oil drilling station. The audience is also introduced to Neeson’s character through a particularly gripping moment, where contemplates life’s worth while staring down the barrel of a
When the oil drillers board the doomed flight home, the chaos that ensues is particularly visceral and
memorable, so it’s unfortunate that “The Grey” stops working after this point. Once the survivors of the crash band together and discover the imposing threat of the fierce wolves, things get especially silly.
Shoddy digital and practical effects bring the animals to life, and make the film reminiscent of the werewolves portrayed in the popular “Twilight” film saga. It could have worked if they had simply appeared ferocious at all. The core problem of this man-versus-nature tale is that despite a few well-executed moments of tension between the survivors and the pack of wolves, things quickly wade into “Friday the 13th”-style slasher movie
What’s most frustrating about “The Grey” is that the audience is supposed to feel like it’s getting a raw look at the human condition when faced with impossible odds. The film attempts to carry the sort of themes you’d find in a Cormac McCarthy book like “The Road” or even the 1993 survival drama “Alive,” only everything is simplified as if to appeal to an adolescent.
Characters quickly fall into stereotypical roles like the promiscuous redneck, the bumbling fool and the
stubborn ex-convict. The only time the film comes close to giving a well-rounded look at these characters is when they’re sitting around a campfire and chatting about what’s pushing them to survive and continue on with their seemingly empty lives.
It’s a scene that we’ve seen time and time again, from “The Blair Witch Project” to “Saving Private Ryan,” and even further back. Only here, it doesn’t work, and when the characters begin to be quickly dispensed by the
wolves, it only provides a thrill in knowing that the end must be near.
Neeson’s character in particular is problematic. A few flashbacks to his childhood and a woman in his earlier life simply provoke a sentimental response, but the dramatic change in will in Neeson’s character remains hazy, and there is no clear reason why he goes from the very depths of desperation to being the key motivator in the group’s willingness to survive.
Neeson redeems himself somewhat in the film’s closing moments in which, without spoiling anything, he asks for a little help from the divine ruler up above. It’s a particularly well-acted and executed scene that undermines the film’s machismo posturing, and ultimately seems entirely out of place in this film.
Logic is something that “The Grey” attempts to avoid. While one could easily pick apart the film’s many surface layer flaws, attempting to delve any deeper into its subtext would be frivolous.
“The Grey” isn’t necessarily a bad movie because it’s poorly made, but because it attempts to portray far more intelligence than its B-movie premise, and eventually settles to be Syfy Channel-level fare. All the pieces are here to make a solid survival film, though much like for our rowdy band of survivors, something clearly went wrong along the way.