Grade: 77 (B+)
“So what’s the deal with Liam Neeson right now?” That question gets thrown around a lot by certain moviegoers, often met with the response “Something awesome, that’s what”. True, it’s easy to miss the Liam Neeson who starred in Schindler’s List, Husbands and Wives, and other films that showcased his talent at portraying sensitive, intelligent men of high moral fiber. Neeson’s shift towards gruff action hero has earlier roots than Taken (see his excellent work in Batman Begins and Kingdom of Heaven), but the 2009 action hit showed the actor diving headfirst into a new phase in his career. Writer-director Joe Carnahan embraced this in his tedious adaptation of The A-Team, but he and Neeson are on much better footing in The Grey, a film as grim and spare as The A-Team was excessive and ridiculous.
John Ottway (Liam Neeson) works for an oil company in Alaska. Separated from his wife, he spends his days killing wolves that threaten the workers. When Ottway and his team finish the drilling job, they get ready to head home, but their plane crashes in a blizzard, leaving only seven survivors including Ottway. Ottway takes leadership as the men brave the cold weather and try to survive, but they have another obstacle: they’ve crashed in the middle of the hunting territory of a pack of grey wolves.
The Grey is Carnahan’s first real critical hit since his 2002 film Narc, and it’s easy to see why. The film establishes an existential nightmare for Neeson early on as he lives isolated from the men around him, drinking and wishing for death. There’s some disparity between the film’s punchy, pulpy nature and the philosophical musings Carnahan occasionally tosses in, but while Carnahan has some difficulty as a writer, he’s assured as a director. Neeson’s opening narration oversells his situation, but Carnahan’s gift with image tells the story rather beautifully: particularly strong is a shot of Neeson with a dying wolf early on. The film gets even better as the men are forced to trek across an unforgiving landscape and fashion makeshift weapons to battle the wolves. Carnahan may have hope as a director yet.
The cast is uniformly strong, particularly Frank Grillo of Warrior fame as the asshole of the group and Dallas Roberts as one of the more hopeful members of the group. It’s Neeson’s show, though, without a doubt. Carnahan has reimagined Neeson as a modern Robert Mitchum: intelligent but brutish and dangerous, full of gravitas. In Neeson, Carnahan tells a story of a man’s struggle with his existence, his lack of faith, and his fear of death. The final shot of the film (excluding an also worthwhile post-credits shot) is a mixture of the hopeful and the ominous that’s hard to achieve. Oh, and Neeson battles wolves with broken bottles on his hands. Forget measured critical language: that’s awesome.
This film is available on Netflix Instant.