Liam Neeson punching the shit out of a rabid pack of man-eating wolves — the teenage boy in all of us could ask for nothing more out of two hours spent in a dirty multiplex seat. And “The Grey,” despite the slightly heavy “true nature of man” philosophy it tries to peddle, doesn’t disappoint. The story is at least original (if not believable), the action is nail-bitingly good, and best of all, there’s not a single idiotic pun anywhere.
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Writer-director Joe Carnahan (“The A-Team”), known for a particularly irritating brand of overblown and over-directed adventure flicks, somehow manages to avoid the trap of making set pieces a higher priority than actors. The effects are felt clearly at every gripping turn. Each character is properly fleshed out and has a distinctive voice that adds to the rather somber base of morality the film has been built around. But Carnahan and newcomer Ian MacKenzie Jeffers, who wrote the short story that inspired the film, don’t give us much of a chance to get too lost in the bleakness, creating raw tension through their surprisingly original script.
It’s obvious from the get-go that Neeson is the driving force behind this film and he adopts the role well, letting his performance maintain a sense of subdued reality in a highly unlikely situation. The character he plays, John Ottoway, is a wolf hunter hired by a large petroleum company. Even though he protects his unsavory colleagues from the bloodthirsty beasts, it quickly becomes clear that Ottoway is a very sad man, deeply conflicted about the meaning behind his work.
But when the plane carrying him and his friends back home crashes into the frigid tundra of northern Alaska, the conflicted old man takes a back seat and a leader is born. Cheesy? Yeah, but it’s the type of character Neeson portrays well. Of course, the movie really starts getting interesting when Ottoway spots a pack of hungry wolves silently tracking his impromptu posse. Before you know it, everyone in the theater is silently cheering as our favorite new wolf hunter straps sharp glass onto his knuckles to take one of the fiends head-on.
Looking beyond the badass action scenes, it’s easy to see that the filmmakers are trying to address deep topics, including the meaning of God and how powerless humans are in the wild. It’s all very Jack London, touching nerve with the primitive nature of our existence. And to a certain extent, it actually works, helping us see the more “human” side of the characters being examined. But as the film rolls on, it gets to the point where we really don’t see the reasoning behind Ottoway reciting poetry before killing a wolf.
Nevertheless, there’s no honesty in denying that this is a surprisingly well-made and entertaining film. Even if he does take himself a tad too seriously, Liam Neeson will always have a special place in our heart if he’s willing to beat things up onscreen. “The Grey” is a shining example of why.