Liam Neeson is the go to man these days, especially if it involves a stoic one man army you'd want on your side of the camp to go up against any adversary. Pierre Morel's Taken established Neeson as one man you would not want to cross, and Unknown continues to a lesser degree that he can really break some bones, and with some serious brains to match that level of brawn as well. Having conquered the human species, it's about time someone cast Neeson to tear through the animal world, and Joe Carnahan does just that with The Grey, putting him in Alaska with a bunch of blue-collared workers constantly threatened by wild wolves.
Hired by a company to protect its employees out in the Alaskan wild from wolves by shooting to kill using his sniper rifle, Ottway (Liam Neeson) contemplates ending his own life given the loss of his wife (Anne Openshaw), since being alone in the cold and the wild probably played tricks on one's mind given the depressive environment with the lack of warmth, and a rowdy bunch of workers he's bounded to protect. But it's soon his turn to be rotated out together with a plane load of fellow colleagues, if not for an electrical storm to somewhat take the whole plane down, and they crash land into the wild. With a survivor count of seven, they soon discover that being alive and kicking may not necessarily be a good thing, for they are surrounded by a wolf pack all ready to prove who's the boss in the wilderness.
Joe Carnahan, responsible for action oriented films like Smokin' Aces and The A-Team, reunites with one of his leading men in the latter film and took things down a couple of notches with this effort, with The Grey playing out more like a disaster film, where the survivors must huddle together over their differences in character that provide constant friction, made worst when morale is low, and danger and death looms over the horizon. From the get go the filmmakers captured the effects of death well, and the aftermath of how such effects have on others who survive, especially playing up on the guilt complex. One of the most heartbreaking scenes early on involve having to deal with a dying man - what one would have to do and say, in order to provide for a less painful, fearful departure. Or the rituals that harks back to our baseline humanity of treating the departed with respect, even if there are those who may choose not to in the name of primal survival.
As with almost all contemporary Liam Neeson starring films, he plays yet another man with something of a plan, stepping up to lead a bunch of rag tags to make it out alive in the harsh environment that threaten to devour them in a blanket of icy snow. He becomes like a one man McGuyver as noted by a compatriot, who knows just about everything they need to know about their common enemies - the landscape as well as the wolves constantly nipping at their party. It's almost like a battle of wills, rather than an all out actioner, with survivors staring death down in the eyes, and constantly moving and using their wits to get through unpredictable weather conditions, playing it all out like a psychological game instead.
Containing many harrowing scenes playing upon incidents that could happen to anyone, with hypotheticals of how would one fare if caught in a similar situation between a rock and a hard place, The Grey accomplished a lot more by showing a lot less, frequently employing cut aways or fade outs to provide deliberate gaps, that would happen in real life as well, such as black outs, or time taken to doze off, before awakening to new realities that demand immediate action even when in a daze. The amazingly haunting musical score by Marc Steitenfeld also provides the film with another mesmerizing dimension that plays on the unknown fate that the party will face, and will keep you at the edge of your seat when accompanying some death-defying moments.
What made The Grey stand out is not its action sequences, where episodes have been almost revealed in its trailer to the final detail, but for the more dramatic moments involving the interaction of the survivors and their group dynamics. At times lapsing into caricatures, such as the coward, the stoic supporter, the loud mouthed, and the de-facto leader who has to step up rather reluctantly, lead and make a stand, the narrative dedicates ample time to provide a lot more layers to the characters, allowing you to get chummy with and empathize with their predicament, rooting for everyone to survive their ordeal even as the odds began to stack against their favour, and allowing you to feel a little tingle in your heart for those who would fall.
Probably Joe Carnahan's least flashy film to date, being more meditative than a wham-bang action flick from start to end, don't leave the cinema hall just yet when the end credits roll, otherwise you will short change yourself of the film's actual finale. Recommended stuff, and more so if you're a fan of Neeson's recent take on kick-butting characters.