Going by the trailer, you could be forgiven for thinking The Grey is just another monster movie: Jaws with wolves, or a sub-zero Tremors. There’s actually a lot more to it than that, despite A-Team director Joe Carnahan’s best efforts to drag Ian Mackenzie Jeffers’s existential thriller into the bottom of the popcorn tub.
Based on Jeffers’s short story 'Ghost Walker', The Grey concerns a group of grizzled oil rig workers whose plane crashes in the Alaskan wilderness. The survivors – including Liam Neeson’s suicidal marksman – are left to battle the elements, one another and a pack of grey wolves. They also have the existence of God, the meaning of life and their own fates to ponder.
Anyone who saw Seraphim Falls a few years ago will know roughly what to expect. Manly men – ‘ex-cons, criminals, fugitives, assholes', as Neeson’s character brands them – trudge through the snow, bickering, boozing, bonding, eating what they can find and exploding into violence every now and then.
As the humorously named (if you’re an old punk, anyway) John Ottway, Neeson is typically solid, and for fans of Taken there is more of the actor’s now trademark monologues. Keeping his native accent for the role, Neeson’s Ottway is haunted by visions of his dead wife and clings to a poem penned by his alcoholic Irish father, ‘Into the Fray’, which becomes central to the script.
As a man mourning his wife, it can’t have been easy for Neeson to play a man mourning his wife. Or perhaps it’s therapy. Either way, Neeson does 'rock bottom' well.
The supporting cast are also good value. There is some nice character development for the likes of Frank Grillo as a sex-mad Italian, and Dallas Roberts as a more thoughtful type. Unfortunately, some of the actors have to deliver deeply silly expository dialogue. Even the most imbecilic hick would know wolves ‘don’t give a damn about shrubs and berries’, for example. Jaws’s USS Indianapolis speech it ain’t.
In fact, several of the scenes featuring the wolves could have been improved by leaving them out altogether, and not just because they’re a dodgy mix of CGI, puppetry and actual wolf carcasses. The theme of man’s interior struggle to survive is far more interesting than Ottway and co’s battle against Alpha and Omega (yes, the wolves have names).
Happily, Jeffers’s existential bent manages to surface enough to make The Grey a very satisfying film for spiritualists, nihilists or Charles Bronson fans. If intense philosophical debates don’t spell 'Friday night fun' for you, The Grey also boasts the scariest plane crash since Alive and the most vertiginous sequence since Cliffhanger.
Carnahan’s fifth picture sees him back approaching the form of Narc, after a detour into blockbuster silliness. Best of all, though, this and 2007’s Death Sentence mark Jeffers out as a major talent to watch.
As for the calls for a boycott of the film by animal rights groups, well, it is true that The Grey won’t do the argument for the reintroduction of wolves into remote parts of the UK many favours, but you’d like to think the less hysterical viewer would realise it’s only a movie.
The Grey is on general release now.