REVIEW: 'The Grey'

Some movie reviewers like to avoid trailers altogether – they feel it might skew their criticism one way or another. In the case of the new Liam Neeson adventure film The Grey, I don’t think I would have seen the movie if it weren’t for the ad. Many movie buffs know which one I’m talking about: the trailer where Liam Neeson’s character faces off against a huge wolf, using a hunting knife and broken mini-bar bottles taped to his hands.

The teaser reminded us that Liam Neeson is one of those tried-and-true badasses. The question was, could The Grey hold up to the impression we got from the trailer? In many ways, it did. The Grey is a hard-boiled, darkly introspective thriller, one that only takes a few wrong turns along the way.

Neeson plays John Ottway, a security contractor hired by an oil company operating in Alaska to protect its workers from wolves. Ottway is set to head home from the rig with a number of other men when their plane goes down in the wilderness.

Only a handful of men survive the crash, including Ottway (of course!). Ottway finds he must continue to protect the men from both the brutal conditions and a pack of vengeful wolves who are constantly stalking the survivors.

That’s about all there is to the plot, and I’m glad. Director Joe Carnahan (Narc, The A-Team) knows that to introduce some silly conspiratorial intrigue would only distract from what we would have called a “B movie” back in the day. The Grey is all about a relentless push to survive, and if you expect any more from it, you’ll leave disappointed. It’s just as fun to guess which of the survivors will be the next to die as it is to hope they make it out in one piece.

The screenplay was written by Carnahan and Ian Mackenzie Jeffers, who also wrote the short story the movie is based on. The two writers flesh out Ottway’s character a bit by including some drama with his wife and some tender memories of his father. In the end, that material just helps fill the quieter sections between wolf attacks, and I’m fine with it. The key to the whole picture is Neeson, without whom this movie would have been as cold as the film’s location.

It would be too easy to pass off the emotion of Neeson’s performance as the actor pouring out the grief from the death of his wife, Natasha Richardson. That would discredit the work Neeson obviously put into making Ottway feel so tortured. The character's struggles are complex: he misses his wife, he questions his faith, he wonders whether it's worth trying to survive. You might question whether this belongs in a movie like The Grey. But Neeson is so good with the material that you forget you're watching a "man vs. beast" genre picture.

I was actually impressed by the quality of Carnahan’s camerawork. He uses some interesting shots, my favourites being when he appears to throw the camera off a ledge to convey a character’s point of view as they tumble across the landscape. The blizzard conditions and frozen wasteland all look painfully real; I learned from a radio interview Neeson did a week or so ago that the production actually shot in those conditions – there’s no CGI snow here.

As for the wolves, they're pretty intense. Some reviewers have complained about a few shots where the CGI is noticeable, but both Carnahan and Neeson contend that it’s intentional. Apparently the wolves are supposed to feel “more than real”, as if they represent the inner demons chasing the men.

Whatever significance you want to read into it, most will be spooked by these beasties. At the screening I went to, there was more than one audience member letting the odd profanity slip out when a wolf popped up. That’s not to say The Grey is some horror flick crammed with jump moments – it just uses the occasional one to keep you on your (frozen?) toes.

But then there's the matter of what we saw in the trailer. We were promised a fight with a wolf - in fact, we were promised a fight where Neeson goes in strapping a knife and broken glass to his knuckles. I'll let you know right now that we don't see the fight. Some may call this "false advertising", and I'll admit that I was disappointed as well.

But maybe it's for the best; it's likely the film could have become too silly if we had actually seen Neeson go at it. Just this once, I'm willing to trust Joe Carnahan and let the awesomeness live on in my imagination.

A final word about the ending. I won’t spoil it, but the movie cuts to black, followed by the credits, at an unexpected time. I was silly enough to leave the theatre during the credits, and I missed a bonus scene at the end. At first I thought I’d been robbed of a proper ending, but I understand the scene does provide an answer to at least one question the audience would inevitably have after that cut.

Knowing that, this movie gets a higher rating than I planned. For its non-stop, purely entertaining approach and an impressive performance by Liam Neeson, The Grey gets three stars out of four.

What did you think of The Grey? Was it the awesome trailer that convinced you to see it? Did you enjoy it more because you went in with lowered expectations? What did you think of the ending? Sound off in the comments section. If you’re new to this site, you can browse through some of my recent reviews below, or you can check me out on Twitter.

Recent Releases:

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy | A Matter of Taste | Margin Call | Happy Feet Two

Reviews of Classic Movies:

Doctor Zhivago (1965) | Spellbound (1945) | The Graduate (1967)2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)