In The Grey, Liam Neeson once again plays a man who is separated from his loved ones, just like he did in Taken and Unknown. Only this time, there are wolves! Neeson may be pushing 60, but he cuts such a commanding action-hero figure, it’s hard to begrudge the actor for abandoning the sort of ambitious pictures he used to make (Schindler’s List, Kinsey) in favor of schlock like Clash of the Titans.
And Neeson is always compelling, even in a movie as ridiculous as The Grey. He plays Ottway, one of the grizzled oil rig workers stranded in the Alaskan wilderness after a plane crash. The men, who sport the sort of unkempt facial hair that lets you know they are super tough, are miles from civilization and short on supplies. Worst of all, they have attracted the attention of a pack of ferocious wolves, who are more territorial than the Crips and the Bloods put together.
The wolves in The Grey seem to have watched a lot of Friday the 13th movies, because they have a knack for pouncing out of the shadows that rivals the mad skills of Jason Voorhees. Most of the wolves also seem to be made of computer pixels and rubber prosthetics, presumably because director Joe Carnahan didn’t want his cameraman to be eaten. Carnahan takes a page from the Jaws playbook and tries to keep the predators off screen as much as he can, but the lack of a palpable threat seriously wounds the movie. Also hurting the movie: All the existential discussions around the campfire by ex-cons fond of saying “Shut the f--- up!” and reminiscing about the 53-year-old hookers who gave them the clap.
Although it looks like a survival adventure, most of The Grey is devoted to characters chanting poems, debating the existence of God and recounting their pasts to each other (“My dad was … not without love.”) This may be Carnahan’s way of answering the critics who blasted him for following up his strong directorial debut (Narc) with junky popcorn pictures (Smokin’ Aces, The A-Team). But The Grey is so leaden and dull that the more substance Carnahan tries to give the movie, the more you wish someone would turn into a werewolf. Is there anything more boring than a respectable B-movie? Even well choreographed sequences where the characters square off against nature (such as a scene in which the men must figure out a way to get across a wide chasm) don’t work, because the green screen effects look so cheap, they make Diary of a Wimpy Kid seem like an ILM production.
At least there is Neeson. In The Grey, Ottway knows what the wolves are thinking. He eases mortally wounded men by telling them what death will feel like (he knows that too!), and he’s prone to spouting observations such as “There’s blood in the air. And there’s death.” I laughed a lot during The Grey, even though the film is pretty much humorless, but I never once laughed at Neeson, who is convincing even when he’s in the dark surrounded by wolves whose eyes glow like Jawas. The actor even made me forgive the last scene in the film, an ending that wrests the title of “Most Anticlimactic Finale of All Time” from The Devil Inside. If you’re in the mood to see a movie about a man stranded in the Arctic with wolves, check out Never Cry Wolf, a Disney movie from 1983. No, it doesn’t have buckets of awesome gore or people constantly bickering for no apparent reason. But there are almost no special effects in it, and all the wolves are real.
Cast: Liam Neeson, Dermot Mulroney, Frank Grillo, Dallas Roberts, James Badge Dale, Joe Anderson.
Director: Joe Carnahan.
Screenwriters: Joe Carnahan, Ian Mackenzie Jeffers.
Producers: Joe Carnahan, Jules Daly, Mickey Liddell.
An Open Road Films release. Running time: 117 minutes. Vulgar language, violence, gore, inordinate use of CGI. Opens Friday Jan. 27 at area theaters.