In a universe where Liam Neesonhadn’t become Hollywood’s favorite First Quarter Action Star (following early-in-the-year hits “Taken” and “Unknown,” which a friend of mine collectively refers to as “Schindler’s Pissed”), it’s plausible that “The Grey” would be sold as a meditative man-against-nature movie and not as a rousing thriller.
The thrills are there, to be sure, but “The Grey” periodically pauses the action to provide actual character development and dramatic interplay, mostly to the film’s benefit.
Neeson stars as Ottway, a man torn apart over the estrangement of his wife (Anne Openshaw, who appears in several flashbacks and dream sequences) and working on an oil field in a remote stretch of Alaska, shooting the native wolves if they get too close.
When an Anchorage-bound airplane carrying Ottway and a bunch of roughnecks on an R&R weekend crashes in the middle of nowhere, the small band of survivors struggle to survive the elements, as well as a pack of wolves that’s in pursuit.
Director Joe Carnahan (“Narc,” “Smokin’ Aces”) keeps much of the proceedings brooding and quiet, making loud moments — like the vivid plane crash, a scene that will definitely rattle anyone who’s phobic about flying — stand out all the more.
Carnahan’s screenplay (written with Ian Mackenzie Jeffers, based on the latter’s short story) artfully balances character-based drama with elements of the slasher movie (people get picked off one by one, with Mother Nature instead of Freddy Krueger as the killer) and World War II foxhole epic (Ottway’s fellow survivors include the Loud Guy, the Sensitive Guy, the African-American Guy, the Nice Latino, the Selfish Latino and the Dermot Mulroney).
Not all of the characters are quite as interesting or fully fleshed-out as they might be, but “The Grey” gets away with interrupting the tension in an attempt to make its ensemble more human. Ottway, of course, gets the greatest amount of largesse from the screenplay, and we do get one or two third-act revelations about him that are genuinely surprising.
This is one of those movies where it’s definitely worth finding a theater with the best sound system possible — that plane crash feels all the more immediate thanks to sound designer Bob Kellough and his team, of course, but their work also makes everything from the relentless wind on the tundra to the distant howls of the hungry wolves rattle through your ribcage.
Apart from one unbelievably superhuman feat (that conveniently takes place off-camera), the men of “The Grey” respond to their peril in all-too-mortal ways, either slipping up, creatively addressing the situation, or even literally giving up the ghost when they realize that they’re just too exhausted to continue. The film, however, never lets up, keeping the suspense going even after the closing credits have rolled. (Sit through them for the film’s final coda, incidentally.)
Memories of “The Grey” will probably melt away before spring’s first sunny day, but it’s the kind of movie that will satisfy both fans of Neeson’s serious performances in films like “Kinsey” and those who line up for his more recent spate of I-will-kill-everyone flicks.