Despite being sixty years old, Liam Neeson has become quite the action star. Ever since 2008’s Taken, he has been starring in films that allow him to beat up on adversaries, showcasing his characters’ strengths and determinations. At an initial glance, The Grey may appear to be a standard action film that cast Liam Neeson because of his newfound love for action movies, but upon further examination, one will discover that The Grey is much deeper than most viewers will expect. Sure, it is a thoroughly exciting survival yarn, but it is also a study on death, religion and the way that we cope with the loss of a loved one.
John Ottoway (Neeson) works in Alaska killing wolves that threaten workers on an oil drilling plant. After their job is completed, Ottoway and the other men head home on a late night flight. The plane crashes in the Alaskan wilderness, leaving only seven survivors. They are lost with very little food or protection from the cold, but they soon discover that these are the least of their problems. Their plane has landed in a den of wolves, which causes the wolves to defend the territory which they believe belongs to them. Ottoway, being an expert on killing wolves, suggests that the men leave the wreckage of the plane, in the hopes that they will exit the wolf den. As the remaining survivors begin their trek across the Alaskan wilderness, they realize that surviving the plane crash was the easy part.
Director Joe Carnahan, who previously worked with Neeson on The A-Team, has the ability to build tension through scenes of intense adventure. The film begins with a fairly interesting plane crash sequence, but then the action disappears for a while. It isn’t until two of the survivors are killed that the action begins to truly build. This is partly due to the characterization that occurs midway through the film. After the first two deaths, the remaining survivors build a fire that they use to survive the night. It is in this scene that we truly begin to care for the characters and when a film has characters that we care for, the action is more intense than it would normally be.
There are some truly exciting sequences, including a surprisingly suspenseful scene where the characters are forced to shimmy across a cliff using nothing but a rope made out of clothes. Also exhilarating is a scene where a character falls into a river and is carried away through the rapids. The wolves, which can be interpreted as a loose metaphor for Ottaway’s inner struggles, also provide the film with tension. Carnahan chose to use practical effects instead of an overabundance of CGI, which cause the wolves to appear fairly lifelike.
What sets The Grey apart from other films of the same genre is that it contains surprising thematic depth. While the film never takes a firm stance on death and religion, the characters discuss such topics and ponder what will happen to them after they die. Near the end of the film, Ottoway looks up at the sky and pleads with God to save him. He begs for God to prove that he exists now, and not later. To casual moviegoers, these scenes may simply be a break in the action, but to me, these were some of the most compelling scenes in the film. A scene where a man has a vision of his daughter right before he dies is absolutely heartbreaking.
There are, essentially, only seven characters in the film, so most of these characters get a fair amount of screen time. Liam Neeson brings a strength to his performance, that is quite similar to his role in Taken. Unlike Taken, his performance in this film also has a sense of vulnerability. When the film begins he is a suicidal wreck, but instead of simply giving up after the crash, he chooses to fight for his life. All other performances in the film are adequate, but none of them really stand out from the others. Most of the men are bundled up tight with frost on their faces, so it is often difficult to distinguish one character from another.
If the first half of The Grey was as compelling as the second, the film could have been an absolute knockout. Even with a few problems, most viewers will find something to enjoy here. It may be a more humble effort than some of Neeson’s more recent films, but you still get to see him do battle against a den of wolves. The Grey is a fantastic title for the film: it could refer to the snowy wasteland, the color of the wolves, or the emptiness that Ottoway is feeling inside himself.
The Grey receives 3/4