Confession – I hate action movies. (Okay, maybe not hate, but strongly dislike with a fierce passion.) There’s only so much male posturing and muscle flexing I can take before, as Linkin Park so eloquently put it, “I’m about to break.” And that’s all used up before 9 a.m. on a Monday thanks to friends and acquaintances bragging about how many beers they sunk or how many numbers they acquired or how many trees they chopped down with their fists. Sure, it’s fun, but after a while I need a break, as if I’d run a 10 hr marathon and a friend asked if I’d like a quick celebratory jog. The Grey is nothing like that, I’m pleased to say. First screened in the cinemas on a cheap Tuesday early this year, I walked out of the dark theatre utterly speechless. Liam Neeson’s powerhouse performance as wolf-killer Ottoway had blown me away. I was expecting another rendition of Taken, 2010’s Commando, and was greeted with something else entirely. On the surface level it’s about a plane crash and the survivors fight against the elements – and a dozen wolves – to survive. Beneath that, however, is a rich depth of character and a reflection of masculinity, of what it means to be a man, of what it means to survive and not only survive, but live. It’s these questions and themes that seem to have been misinterpreted by a lot of the cinema-going audience, if the constant stream of “no, bro, it’s about wolves” is to be believed.
Ottoway is stationed in north Alaska at an oil-drilling site, killing wolves that pose a threat to the other employees with a hunting rifle. He spends time alone at the bar with the drink and thoughts concerning his wife who is no longer with him. Pausing to attempt suicide, he abstains when he understands he still has a job to do – protect the men from the wolves.
One night they all board a small plane to fly home and are caught in a ferocious blizzard that freezes the aircraft, causing a crash in a remote location, completely isolated from civilization. The survivors, including Ottoway, band together to do what they can to stay warm and soon realise the blizzard isn’t their only threat. Huge grey wolves regularly pounce upon them and they do what they can to retreat and avoid being attacked.
The film is loaded with spectacular moments – the plane falling from the sky, failed and successful attempts to defend the attacks of the wolves – that offer enough salivation for all the action fans out there. The quiet moments are when the film is at its most effective however. One particularly heavy scene is a long cut involving a man dying in real time. It’s notable because we care for him yet have been barely introduced to him, a testament to director Joe Carnahan (Narc, Smokin’ Aces).
Liam Neeson is an actor whose CV I don’t need to list. We all know him as the straight-faced badass that comes in to kick everyone’s ass and take down everybody’s name, narrating his way through whatever revenge plot is handed to him. He’s done a particularly good job at it so far which makes his turn as Ottoway all the more remarkable. There’s a lot more heart here as the wolf-killer, a man that knows and respects his prey and who tries to influence the men around him with this knowledge and outlook, almost like a father figure that they’re all so desperately in need of right now. I have no doubts in saying this will be one of the roles that Neeson will be remembered for in years to come.
As with any film that delights in inhospitable climates and occasional action set pieces, something is lost on the small screen but it doesn’t hold the film back from succeeding in the same places that it did in the theatre. DOP Masanobu Takayanagi does away with long shots of the scenery and limits the camera to dirty close shots mirroring their perspectives, creating a very tight universe that separates The Grey from other wilderness pieces.
The greatest thing about this film is it’s a story limited to the survival of these men, not a series of flashy scenes designed to look pretty. A less confident director would have gone down the predictable route of showing cutaways to their families ringing the emergency hotline while Grandpa made tea and Grandma assured the daughter that Daddy was okay. The world consists solely of these men and the wilderness.
Ignore the trailers advertising this as a Taken reboot; you’ll only be disappointed. This is the story of lost men searching for what their role in life is and it’s a wower.
[rating=4] and a half
Extras for both the DVD and Blu-Ray include three behind the scenes featurettes. The Grey will be available to purchase on all formats plus VOD from 27th June.
Follow Nicholas Brodie on twitter @fodusempire
Directed: Joe Carnahan
Written by: Joe Carnahan (screenplay), Ian Mackenzie Jeffers (screenplay)
Starring: Liam Neeson, Dermot Mulroney and Frank Grillo