There are movies like The Artist in which every shot is an exquisitely composed tableau. And then there are movies like The Grey, where Liam Neeson (Unknown) bare-knuckle boxes a giant Alaskan timber wolf.
My job as a reviewer is convincing you that both sorts can be enjoyable and worth your hard-earned money.
Neeson plays Ottway, who has the manliest job since gladiators went out of style: He is a professional wolf killer. Before I get a letter from PETA, Ottway acts in defense of oil field workers, picking off the massive wolves as they attempt to attack.
Still, Ottway is a man haunted by thoughts of his wife and his hope to reunite with her. So he joins a group of workers on a plane headed back to civilization, armed with a sweet note to his beloved.
Big mistake. The plane and some of its passengers are ripped to pieces, with the rest falling to earth in the snowy middle of nowhere. Ottway soon wrangles the survivors, builds fires and searches the debris for useful items. Focused on combating the cold, the ragtag crew seems almost relieved. I mean, what else could happen to this group after they survived a plane crash?
Cue a wolf’s howl.
Ottway’s gun was lost in the crash, and now the men have only plane shrapnel and fire standing between them and 100-plus pounds of undomesticated dog.
With hope and their numbers dwindling, the survivors seek guidance from the wolf killer.
What results is a thrilling chase across the Alaskan wilderness and a battle of man vs. wolf that shows the audience just how weak human bodies are without weapons and technology.
The only thing more impressive than the scenery is Neeson’s dramatic career revival at nearly 60. It’s amazing to think that Neeson, known mostly for his dramatic roles, is becoming the next Bruce Willis, who is his junior by three years.
This is Neeson’s show, and the movie respects that by making him the constant center of attention. His physical presence as a hulking bearded figure is striking, and his dramatic chops mean he can layer emotions into his character that Jason Statham couldn’t accomplish with even his fiercest scowl. Ottway is at once the most capable and the most lost of the crew. He’s terrified, but he’s the only person in the group with survival skills, so he has to lead.
Of course a Neeson-centric movie means that the other unlucky guys are fair game for the big bad wolf. This works only because the supporting cast is so likable in their short scenes. Dermot Mulroney and Dallas Roberts create relatable, sympathetic characters with their limited screen time. This ensemble is so effective you hope the wolves are getting full.
As for those toothsome enemies, director Joe Carnahan (The A-Team) uses the computer-generated beasts well. These hulking, snarling animals don’t care if the men have families. Or hopes. Or dreams. They just care that there are intruders in their territory. And intruders must be killed. The film is most effective at night, when all you can see is the glow of their eyes or a puff of breath from their howls.
The movie’s manly meditations on life, God and the meaning of it all can be a bit heavy-handed. Still, it’s nice to see an action vehicle that takes time to think instead of just blowing things up.
The Grey is a movie you’ll have fun discussing days afterward. What could the men have done better? What would you do when surrounded by wolves? Can Liam Neeson kick Chuck Norris’ butt? Just be sure you remember it’s all a movie, or you’ll end up giving your dogs the side-eye as you feed them, like this reviewer did.