Liam Neeson’s hypnotic, sensual baritone does more for The Grey than its metaphysical musings—imminent death being a surefire stimuli to those kinds of conversations—and more than the gripping plane crash that sets this survivalist tale in motion, and far more than the hungry, shadowy wolves who hover like angels of death when the survivors of the crash venture out of the wreckage.
Neeson’s big-game hunter, Ottway, works for an oil company as an animal-control officer. He describes the isolation of the refinery shanty town, the dregs of society who inhabit it, and his suitability for being among them. He scribbles a few more lines of poetry on a piece of paper he’s been carrying around for God-knows-how-long, repeating in his mind a melancholy refrain of “Not a second goes by that I don’t think of you. I know I can’t get you back.” When Ottway is almost killed during the plane’s plummet, he drifts into a memory of the loving woman the poem is addressed to.
And so the film’s life-or-death struggle takes on an added dimension. The resolution of Ottway’s flashbacks may be predictable, but it’s no less effective for being so. After the crash, some of the men are dying, or in shock, and it’s Ottway who eases one man’s path to the hereafter while rallying the others. He also has to warn the disoriented men that there are wolves lurking around the wreckage, and that they are aggressively territorial.
Directed and co-written by Joe Carnahan, The Grey, his best effort since Narc, is relatively thoughtful for a macho action movie, and Neeson gracefully carries the often enthralling story past its absurdities, continuing the winning streak he’s been on as an action hero since Taken. The director doesn’t shy away from the nastiness of some of the survivors (Frank Grillo as the volatile Diaz is especially edgy), and it’s a credit to the dialogue that their lives are as important as those of the more palatable personalities (including an unrecognizable Dermot Mulroney). What does hamper The Grey (the title has multiple meanings) from realizing its Jack London-style ambition is the wolves, which hover between being mystical beasts of the pristine wilderness (nature’s guardians, if you will), and nature-documentary animals defending their den (wherever that is). It’s likely that Carnahan didn’t want to demonize the wolfpack as man-eaters, though ecological sensitivities fit uneasily in a movie where death comes suddenly and inexorably. But there is still Neeson, who strides across the frozen landscape with a stoic majesty that even London could admire.