"Once more into the fray. Into the last good fight I'll ever know. Live and die on this day. Live and die on this day."
The Grey is a far better, more thoughtful movie than its misleading marketing campaign promised. With Liam Neeson in the lead and trailers promising a roller-coaster action ride, it looked as if we were essentially in for Taken with wolves in Alaska. However, The Grey is of a different ballpark of action movie - it's a film concerned with character and tension, sturdily fusing drama and nail-biting thrills to terrific effect. It's also gritty and grounded; a chilling study of survival which spends its time examining the behaviour of distressed people thrown into extraordinary circumstances. Director Joe Carnahan may have failed with 2010's misfire The A-Team, but we've clearly been underestimating this guy, as the level of maturity and skill he displays here promises Carnahan a spot among Hollywood's elite.
Depressed and on the verge of suicide due to the loss of a loved one, John Ottway (Neeson) works for an oil company in Alaska, using his rifle to protect workers from potential wolf attacks. On the trip home, John's plane crashes in the middle of the remote Alaskan wilderness during a snowstorm, leaving seven survivors and a handful of corpses. As the group start to recover and struggle to endure the harsh, subzero temperatures, a more immediate threat presents itself: a pack of hungry wolves looking to kill those trespassing in their territory. Assuming the role of makeshift leader, Ottway calls upon his animal expertise as he leads the weary, frightened men to a nearby forest - and, hopefully, to rescue.
In keeping with Carnahan's usual output, The Grey is an exceedingly manly movie - it has gallows humour, male bonding, ego clashes, manly banter, heroism and noble sacrifices. With the freedom of an R rating, these elements feel real and it's easy to find yourself tricked by the illusion that the film establishes. Admittedly, The Grey contains a handful of stock character types, yet the script (by Carnahan and co-writer Ian Mackenzie Jeffers) gives them genuine three-dimensionality. The trademark asshole, for instance, undergoes arcs and exhibits depth; something not often seen in your typical Michael Bay blockbuster. And Ottway is more than just a clichéd hero - his character allows for the filmmakers to explore weighty issues. Ottway's opening monologue in particular is utterly heart-wrenching. Furthermore, as the story is more or less a character study of Ottway battling personal demons, there's the suggestion that the film's proceedings may be a metaphorical representations of Ottway's internal struggles as he slowly dies. After all, the script assumes a standard routine of characters being picked off one-by-one, but this makes sense if you consider that they are dying constituents of Ottway's psyche. It's fantastic food for thought.
Beginning with the most harrowing and visceral plane crash in years, The Grey is fucking riveting until the very end. Carnahan is especially skilled at building and maintaining unbearable tension, using the crew's perpetual vulnerability as a way to keep us on the edge of our seats at all times. Furthermore, Carnahan respects his audience too much to stoop to cheap scares. Instead, the thrills are earned. A scene in which several pairs of wolf eyes appear out of the pitch-black darkness is a complete "shit your pants" moment, and it doesn't even have any loud music cues or gore. The film was shot in real freezing conditions in British Columbia, and this audacious creative decision is extremely beneficial to the atmosphere and eerie sense of dread and isolation. The wolf attacks, too, were pulled off with competent CGI and animatronics, though Carnahan's trademark shaky-cam/quick-cutting routine is too overdone at times. Marc Streitenfeld's musical accompaniment also impresses, as it's effective at building atmosphere.
Liam Neeson is predictably sublime here, infusing the material with all-important gravitas. This is one of Neeson's greatest performances to date - he becomes John Ottway, and you can sense the character's depression and world experience behind his weary eyes. Neeson has proved that he can handle both serious drama and hard-nosed action; here, he combines the two modes with effortless abandon. Fortunately, Neeson's supporting cast is top-notch. The likes of Dallas Roberts, Frank Grillo and Dermot Mulroney all hit their marks perfectly, and there's never a moment that feels faux or artificial. These guys feel like real people, and it's easy to ponder the question of "What would I do?" while watching the men endure harrowing circumstances.
Wolf attacks constitute barely any of The Grey's running time, as Carnahan's film is more interested in watching its protagonists deal with the undying threat of the beasts' presence. Not a dumb action film, the flick has unexpected depth and substance, leading to a turn towards existentialism as the bold ending approaches. The ending leaves things open for interpretation, while a brief post-credits shot helps to create some type of closure. People are destined to be pissed about how it ends, yet it's pitch-perfect in the eyes of this reviewer as it's a creative solution to avoid being conventional. The Grey is an exceptional, harsh film which will likely end up being one of the top films of 2012.