The Grey Review
Liam Neeson’s career continues its recent action-orientated trajectory with The Grey, an intensely riveting survival thriller set in the Alaskan wilderness. Whereas many Hollywood stars begin their careers in action movies before evolving in the direction of comedic or dramatic roles as middle age approaches, Neeson has done the exact opposite. The days of Schindler’s List and Michael Collins have long since given way to middle-of-the-road product like The A-Team and Taken. The trailer for The Grey gives the impression that the film is yet another run of the mill punch-fest with a pack of wolves taking the place of the usual Eastern European villains, but anyone going in expecting this is likely to come away gravely disappointed.
The grim tone and bleak atmosphere is evoked from the outset as we see Ottway (Neeson) walking through an oil drilling station in remotest Alaska, describing the various lowlifes who would choose to work in such a godforsaken place: convicts, outcasts, loners. This includes himself, a hunter paid to kill any wild animals threatening the other workers, in particular the wolves. A plane transporting a number of workers back to civilization crashes in the middle of nowhere, leaving only seven survivors – Ottway among them. The immediate struggle for survival in the frozen surroundings takes a turn for the worse when it becomes apparent their unscheduled arrival is not appreciated by the local inhabitants, who begin to pick the group off one by one.
If The Grey had been made thirty years ago, it would probably have been directed by John Carpenter and starred Kurt Russell (and it would certainly have had a more interesting poster). It has that invigorating whiff of masculinity and testosterone distilled directly from the Wild West of Hollywood yore that Carpenter brought to films like The Thing and Assault on Precinct 13, as Men (with a capital M) do battle with their enemies and each other as they struggle to overcome the dire predicament in which they find themselves. It’s a familiar Man vs. Nature scenario, but director Joe Carnahan tells his version (based on a short story by Ian Mackenzie Jeffers, who co-wrote the script with Carnahan) with a sombre mood while delivering some terrifically tense action set-pieces.
That mood perfectly matches the grey colour of the (beautifully shot) snow-covered ground and the cloudy sky it seamlessly merges with, as well as the wolves that continually track and encircle the group, led by a particularly cunning alpha male. It also accurately describes the survivors: they aren’t simply a collection of good guys and bad guys, heroes and cowards; they are different shades of grey. The key characters are the obvious archetypes who usually turn up in these sorts of adventures (hard man, family man, foolish man, coughing man, etc.) and though you can just about tell them apart, not everyone is given enough shading to make them interesting.
The exception is Neeson, whose occasional flashbacks to his wife at home reveal the reason for his uncheery disposition (and that was before the plane crash). It soon becomes apparent that Ottway is the alpha of the human pack; his skills as a huntsman keeping the wolves at bay as he leads the group across a landscape that continually tests them. Neeson is perfectly cast as both the hunter and the hunted, a man trained to survive in the wilderness yet uncertain whether he wants to return to a life that only holds despair for him.
It leads to an exciting and interesting conclusion that both satisfies and yet leaves you desperate to know what happened next. It’s a classy finish to what could have been a straightforward enough thriller in someone else’s hands; Carnahan elevates the material beyond its pulpy origins to the level of memorable entertainment. Indeed, it isn't too hard to envisage the director being crowned as a successor to John Carpenter’s brand of quality genre thrills.