Suicidal sharpshooter John Ottway (Liam Neeson) is both haunted and hunted in this impressive disaster/adventure thriller. Hired to kill wolves that come too close to a far-north oil refinery, Ottway and six other workers become the maneaters’ prey when their jet crashes in a far-from-civilization frozen wasteland.
Any decent against-all-odds story like this depends on getting viewers to care about the individual people in peril. While Neeson makes the terse and grimly melancholy Ottway relatively gimmick-free, aside from a fondness for bad poetry, too many of his fellow former passengers come off like disaster-flick stereotypes.
There’s insolent punk upstart John Diaz (Frank Grillo), whose smackdown by alpha Ottway is a wolfpack metaphor that may be a little too on the nose. There’s young-‘n’-dumb Todd Flannery (Joe Anderson), who is so stoner annoying that a stranger near me muttered she wished he had died in the crash. There’s also can’t-keep-up fattie Burke (Nonso Anozie), afraid-of-heights Talget (Dermot Mulroney), and vaguely intellectual scribbler Pete Henrick (Dallas Roberts). The seventh survivor gets gobbled so soon he doesn’t have time to make much of an impression.
Director/co-writer Joe Carnahan keeps the tension high as the steadily shrinking group tries eluding, engaging and outrunning the adequately CGI-animated and animatronic wolves, which are no more or less believable than their counterparts in the Twilight movies. Unfortunately, the too-close quick-cuts attack montages are visually incomprehensible. What may have been intended to provide a subjective view of what it’s like to be on the receiving end of a feral feeding frenzy ends up looking B-movie cheesy.
The movie also has occasional cold-weather credibility problems. What are supposed to be extreme sub-freezing conditions alternate between looking bone-chillingly punishing and bunny-slope bearable. Most of the scenes are convincingly frigid, but the ones in which nobody seems especially uncomfortable are odd.
That’s too bad, because many of the movie’s other visuals are genuinely striking. The scattered wreckage of the jet, longshots of men trudging through blizzard conditions and a steep snow-covered cliff face are only a few of the film’s “big shots.” On a smaller scale, the sight of a wolf’s huge pawprint turning red as it fills with blood soaking through the snow is an unforgettable image.
Neeson’s performance as the simultaneously depressed and indomitable Ottway is another factor that overcomes the film’s minor flaws. The screenplay, co-written by Ian Mackenzie Jeffers, makes Ottway a brutally rational non-believer who nevertheless ends up challenging God to make his presence known. Whether he receives a reply will be up to each viewer to decide.
The script also gets points for avoiding complete predictability, with more than a few surprises and an admirably unexpected climax. Also, be sure to wait through all of the closing credits before leaving the theater. Audience members who automatically rush for the exits as soon as the credits appear will miss a (very) short bonus scene that makes the movie’s ambiguous ending a little more definitive.
[Rating: 3.5 stars]
The Grey is released in theaters on Friday January 27, 2012. The film is released in the UK at the same time and in Australia on February 16, 2012.