It’s not often that a film director is brave enough to play it straight with a “when animals attack!” movie, but Joe Carnahan’s The Grey is deadly serious about its man versus nature theme and better for it. It’s an efficient creature-feature, made with conviction and gutsiness.
The Grey pits a crew of roughneck oil drillers, led by wolf hunter Liam Neeson, against a pack of preternaturally intelligent wolves after a plane crash in the ice-blasted northern wastes of America. These lupine predators, we are told, work together as a team, are fiercely territorial and seek revenge when someone makes them angry.
It’s all bunkum, of course. The experts say that wolves — especially the kind depicted in The Grey — are big softies, so the whole premise of the film is as absurd as angry birds or giant killer rabbits.
Yes, it’s a ludicrous concept, but the muscular action scenes, sinewy script and deft characterisations elevate the film above its B-movie set-up. A major reason to see the film is to watch Neeson punch a wolf in the face and remind the world about how great he is in hard-man roles.
Whether he is teaching martial arts to a wayward Bruce Wayne or bumping off sex traffickers, Neeson always goes for broke in his performances. Here, he pours raw intensity into John Ottway, a sniper hired to protect workers at an oil drilling site from feral wolves. Ottway is a tortured soul, as able to comfort a dying comrade as to slay a wolf – a warrior poet of the sort that perhaps only Neeson could pull off.
The other members of the crew aren’t there just to be snacks for the wolves, but are given backgrounds, fears and motivations that put some flesh on their frames. They share a macho blue-collar camaraderie, but they are also allowed to be frail and afraid under their coarse humour.
One of the standout supporting performances comes from Frank Grillo, as the nervy Diaz, who transitions from coward to stoic hero during the course of the film. Of course, there are also clichés, like the guy who hasn’t seen enough horror movies to know you don’t go off to urinate by yourself when there are wolves about.
Carnahan — he is an inventive genre director with credits such as Narc and the A-Team reboot — does many things right in his film that too many other action-adventure directors get so wrong. He uses CGI only to touch up some of the wolf effects — wisely he lets the wolves mostly lurk in the shadows — and filmed the movie in miserable weather in British Colombia.
The creeping cold is the film’s truly terrifying antagonist, far more frightening the wolves. You can feel the bite of the frost and snow because the actors do. There is an authenticity here, a physicality that is lacking in many films that are drowned in florid CGI. Yet Carnahan also finds a bleak beauty in the isolation of his wintery landscapes.
The action scenes are done with brutal directness and economy. The tearing steel of the disintegrating aircraft in the crash scene near the beginning is one highlight; there’s another scene that will induce vertigo for anyone scared of heights. The camera doesn’t flinch from the aftermath of violence either.
The Grey has a melancholic, existential overlay as its characters wrestle with the indifference of nature and the cruelty of fate. Perhaps it’s not Hemingway, but I found it more moving and thoughtful than the average film of this kind. Though Ottway’s memories of gazing into an estranged wife’s loving eyes are overwrought and the poem he loves to quote is trite, Neeson carries him to the end of the film with dignity and grace. — (c) 2012 NewsCentral Media