|Image: Entertainment Film|
Joe Carnahan’s career has had its ups and downs. After justifiably being showered with praise for the gritty cop drama Narc, he received a critical pasting for Smokin’ Aces and his very enjoyable update of The A-Team failed to make enough money to warrant a sequel. He’s reteamed with his A-Team star Liam Neeson for this gritty survival thriller.
Ottway works at a remote Alaskan oil-rig with other “men unfit for mankind”. Their plane goes down in the wilderness and he must lead the survivors to safety when they realise they have crashed into the kill-zone of a ravenous wolf pack.
The Grey has been marketed to appeal to fans of Neeson’s recent action movies. Trailers have emphasised shots of the actor readying himself for a mano-y-mano scrap with the wolves and spitting tough guy dialogue. But the film is quite a different proposition. Yes it’s a thriller, and a very effective one. But it’s also a dour, bleak study of men faced with the fact that their lives are about to end. Ottway is suicidal at the start of the film and surprises himself by finding purpose helping these men to safety. But any heroics have a minimal effect. Despite his best efforts, the team are persistently picked off one by one. If anyone falls behind, falls asleep, or turns their back, they die.
Given Carnahan’s track record, it’s not exactly a surprise to find The Grey is a film about masculinity. It’s interesting that the majority of the survivors are family men with pictures of their loved ones in their wallets and are all quite happy to follow Ottway’s lead, with the exception of the abrasive Diaz (Frank Grillo). The men spend as much time discussing their families and their spirituality as they do running and fighting. They agonise over the greater wisdom that allowed them to miraculously survive a plane crash, only to be killed by something else.
This is not to say that The Grey is not a thriller. The chase is unbearably tense at times, with plenty of jumps and scenes of expertly orchestrated suspense. This is Carnahan’s best since Narc by quite some margin, and he repeats that trick of taking a B-movie premise and presenting a gritty, bleak character study.
The cast do solid work in fairly typed roles, with Dermot Mulroney (Zodiac), Dallas Roberts (3:10 to Yuma) and Nonso Anozie (Conan the Barbarian) as the nice guys and Grillo (Warrior) and Joe Anderson (The Crazies) as the mouthy troublemakers. But it’s Neeson’s show and he’s on excellent form. The role allows him to sink his teeth into a character as well as throw himself into the physical action, which is something that’s been missing from many of his recent roles. The character’s a familiar but powerful contradiction and the actor brings him powerfully to life: a man who’s given up on life and God but keeps fighting.
The Grey manages to be a highly effective thriller as well as a surprisingly affecting journey. While it may not appeal to all audiences, Carnahan’s unfussy but calculating style makes for a gruelling, grim film.
An expert thriller with unexpected depths and a great turn from Neeson.