The Grey is an old-fashioned survival tale harboring pretensions that it is something more. Not a lot more — just a hint of the psycho-cerebral here, a smidgen of the primal and primitive there.
Liam Neeson stars in director Joe Carnahan's latest splash of testosterone, about a wintry plane crash in the Alaskan Arctic in which the survivors are stalked by wolves. Their only protection is one another and the hunter (Neeson) whose job it was to understand wolves and shoot them when they got too close to oil workers.
The crash itself is scary, surreal and graphic, among the best ever filmed. Those who walk away from it find themselves in a snowy hell.
Then we start to meet the sketched-in "types" that the script has packed onto that plane, and the movie loses its lovely promise, if not its premise. There's the sensitive guy with brains (Dallas Roberts), the dad missing his kid (Dermot Mulroney), the hothead Latino ex-con (Frank Grillo), the gentle mountain of a man (Nonso Anozie) and a few others.
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They're in the middle of nowhere, with no real survival gear and no prayer of being found in this blizzard. Not before they freeze to death. Not before the wolves get them.
Neeson — as Ottway, the hunter who takes over this survivor "pack" — lays out the wolf problem: pack dynamics, territory, feeding range. The men, a rough crew of strangers, must scramble through whiteout conditions, keeping warm, keeping the wolves at bay, on a trek to safety.
The idea from this script by Carnahan (Smoking Aces) and Ian Mackenzie Jeffers is that the humans revert to a sort of pack mentality, with Ottway as the alpha dog, challenged by others as the weak and the careless are picked off. The characters pick up random bits of back story, and the film begs us to wonder about the woman we see in Ottway's vivid, hallucinogenic flashbacks.
The spare use of music emphasizes the howling tundra winds, and the production design gets across the bleak, hostile terrain that this mismatched crew must master. The dialogue is hard-bitten, but not particularly punchy or pithy.
Death scenes are handled with a manly grace, with the fatalistic Ottway (Neeson is perfect for this) urging the dying to let it "slide over you."
But The Grey sets up scenarios that it forgets about, such as how to battle a wolf pack — "We kill 'em, one at a time." And I couldn't decide if they lost track of the wolves in the editing, or if Carnahan realized how Twilight-fake the beasts looked and limited their scenes in the final edit.
Digital scenery and digitally enhanced snowstorms? Good. Digital wolves or werewolves? Bad. Why in this post-Avatar pixelated era this should be a reality is anybody's guess.
The makings of a solid adventure tale were here. But what came out in The Grey is entirely too much like the title — gray, and a too digital for its own good.