Released theatrically in January; available on DVD, Blu-ray, and video-on-demand next month
Stop me if you've heard this one before: Liam Neeson plays the role of a character under great duress in a movie thriller. The Grey is his third such winter-released film in as many years, following the respectable Taken and the shabby Unknown. Along with recent roles in schlocky fare like the reboots of both Clash Of The Titans (and its sequel) and The A-Team, as well as next month's awful looking Hasbro board game-inspired Battleship, Neeson is a long way from meaty roles like Oskar Schindler nowadays.
Neeson's presence in The Grey does elevate it from what would likely be a completely forgettable movie to at least something that qualifies as a decent way to entertain yourself for a couple of hours. He plays John Ottway, a skilled sniper working at an Alaskan oil drilling site who protects the workers from wild animals (mostly wolves). On a vacation leave, the small plane carrying Ottway and a bunch of his roughneck, dregs of society co-workers crashes in the Alaskan wilderness, killing all but a handful. At that point, the movie's predominant man-versus-nature theme kicks in, as the Ottway-led group of survivors battle the harsh elements and an encroaching pack of very aggressive wolves, without the aid of any weapons. It's a good thing that Ottway is, you know, a wolf expert and all - that's quite handy, considering the circumstances.
Co-screenwriters Joe Carnahan (who also directs) and Ian Mackenzie Jeffers (on whose short story the film is based) manage to impart a moderate level of dimension to Neeson's character, making Ottway a troubled loner hung up on a past relationship with a mysterious woman who appears in numerous dream scenes. These scenes, where Neeson's character is deeply wounded from his separation from the woman, made me feel extremely uncomfortable, quite frankly, as I couldn't help but see the glaringly obvious parallel to the actor's relatively recent loss of his wife, actress Natasha Richardson. While the Ottway character is somewhat fleshed out, the same can't be said of the supporting cast. That core group, consisting of about a half dozen characters with Dermot Mulroney as the only "name" in the bunch, register as paper-thin, doing little more than incessantly squawking at one another throughout the movie. The Grey's other main problems lie in the visual department. First, the wolves shown are frequently of the CGI variety, and not terribly convincing CGI, either. Some scenes show just their eyes glowing in the dark as they close in on the survivors, which amusingly brought to mind the Jawas from Star Wars, as opposed to the terror that Carnahan intended. Secondly, the director really doesn't seem to get much out of the impressive scenery in Alberta and British Columbia, where the film was shot. When the last third of the film presents more opportunities to capture some of that area's natural beauty, Carnahan demonstrates a surprisingly deficient flair for the visual. Lastly, in an age where the on-screen plane crash has had the bar raised with gripping scenes in Fearless, Knowing, Cast Away, and TV's Lost (just to name a few), the crash sequence in The Grey is a completely underwhelming experience, almost feeling like an afterthought. That's mostly attributable to the film's small budget, though, at a relatively small $25 million.
There's other "nitpicky" reasons why this mediocre and aptly named film drops the ball, such as characters walking around in sub-zero temperatures with their skin needlessly exposed, a character's apparent immunity from the effects of hypothermia, the far-fetched territorial and overly confrontational behaviour of the wolves, and the ridiculous ending. That Neeson makes it (barely) watchable is a testament to his reliable talent.