John Carnahan’s The Grey is a return to form for a director once lauded as the next-big-thing, and a reminder that Liam Neeson’s acting prowess stretches beyond beating terrorists to a pulp.
Since his bruising debut Narc, Carnahan has made two action thrillers. The first was Smokin’ Aces, a muddled mess which stylistically excelled, but ultimately buckled under its own ambition. The second was The A-Team, a crash-bang update of the camp 80’s actioner which was bloodless both in content and execution.
Quickly after the A-Team’s tepid box-office reception Carnahan announced work on The Grey, a stripped back survival drama starring recent collaborator Liam Neeson. The plot is as follows: Ottway (Neeson) is a sharpshooter working in Alaska, he is hired to shoot any wolves attempting to harm the crew. Ottway’s plane crashes and the seven survivors must fight for survival, battling both the elements and the pack of wolves that are on the hunt.
So far, so formula. However, The Grey excels in ways that many survival dramas do not. The protagonist, for example, bears little resemblance to the heroically resilient archetypes usually found in the genre. Neeson’s John Ottway is a complex character: beginning the film a suicidal wreck before slowly shifting into a man who is willing to fight tooth and nail for the right to take in his next breath. That the reason for this is never explained is testament to both the writing and Neeson’s charge of his character. We don’t require an explanation and neither does Ottway. He just needs to live.
The supporting actors fare worse. It is easy to describe them as wolf-fodder as they are far less defined than Ottway. As the film gains momentum you begin to care for them, but barely. The only real horror to be had in the demise of certain characters is the ruthlessness in which they are dispatched.
Wolves can be a tricky creature to capture in film. In the Twilight saga they look eerily like Nintendogs: awful CGI and with the personality of an empty crisp packet. Thankfully, The Grey gets this very right. With the use of animatronics and wonderful CGI, they pack real menace into their time on screen. They are also sparingly used, with Carnahan preferring to employ them as an unseen terror for the majority of the running time.
The Grey is not perfect: the ending may be too ambiguous for some and there are moments where it stretches belief. However, it marks the return of an exciting directorial talent and an outstanding performance from an actor who has recently been willing to rest on his laurels. It is thoughtful, exciting, and has enough heart to warrant the journey, no matter how bleak it may seem.