“No, I can’t believe I’m the guy from Schindler’s List either, but hey, at least this isn’t The A-Team.”

If you go to the multiplex to see an action movie in January, you take your chances and you can’t really complain too much if you come away disappointed. I went into Liam Neeson’s new survival thriller The Grey with low expectations and for a while it seemed like it might modestly exceed them. Unfortunately, what begins as a more thoughtful than average example of its type slowly chokes to death on its own shoddy screenplay. First it starts to plod repetitively and then finally it just slumps into silliness before wrapping up in an unintentionally laugh-out-loud ending.

As we’ve learned to expect, Neeson is ever-reliable as our sort-of hero John Ottway. He works as a sniper working at an oil drilling station in the wilds of Alaska protecting the station’s workers from being eaten by the local wolf population. We’re introduced to him as he pens a fatalistic letter to his wife, knocks back a few drinks at the bar and then heads out into the snow to put a gun in his mouth and swallow a bullet. The exact cause of his moroseness remains vague through most of the film, but rest assured all will be revealed in the end. For whatever reason (mainly I think because the script demands it), Ottway has a change of heart and, instead of offing himself, he boards a flight for civilization along with several of his men. Alas, the plane crashes in heavy turbulence stranding seven survivors in the middle of icy nowhere. At night, the wolves come.

Naturally, there is the obligatory struggle for power between Neeson and one of the troublemaking loudmouths in the group. This stock disaster scenario is quickly resolved, but it’s all rather nonsensical. If one member of the group doesn’t want to follow along, there’s absolutely nothing stopping him from striking out on his own. His quick change of heart makes even less sense. Except for this clichéd plot point, The Grey otherwise dispenses with most of the elements you’d expect from a survival story – those involving quests for food, fire and shelter – and it cuts right to the chase between man and wolf. As the men head south in the hope someone will find them, the wolves pick them off one by one.

At this point the film settles into a videogame-like pattern of conflict and resolution. It’s engaging and suitably claustrophobic at first, but as we wash, rinse and repeat, it gets old fast. In between moments of danger and resolution, there are frequent moments of quiet male bonding. These are supposed to be profound and they’re meant to elevate The Grey above movies of its type. While the movie certainly runs circles around the average Sylvester Stallone picture in the smarts department, so does a drunken monkey who has been hit in the head with a hammer. A few of these moments admittedly work quite nicely (Dermot Mulroney’s thoughts of home are the film’s highlight) and they hint at smarter things to come, but mostly they devolve into bullshit macho campfire bro-losophy. Rather than high minded, they’re just lunkheaded and dull.

In the end, after a silly and unasked for reveal about Neeson’s wife, we’re expected to believe that his experience with these men, or perhaps simply his desire to make it home alive to tell the surviving families, is enough to strengthen his resolve to fight the big alpha wolf and either win or die fighting. Mind you, this is a man who just days earlier was so low he was ready to blow his brains out into the snow. Suicidal types aren’t known for their survival instincts and it’s preposterous that Neeson would’ve come this far. That the physical means of his fighting back are spectacularly silly (this scene is glimpsed in one of the trailers, but I’ll only say it involves a MacGyver like deployment of airplane liquor bottles and I had to stifle my laughter) only add insult to an already fatally wounded picture.

7 Responses to “The Grey (2012)”

  1. I think I’d give this three stars just for not being as bad as it could have been and showing some signs of inspiration. The casting is good (for the most part, although I won’t get into how one excellent actor is wasted) and I really liked the intense reality of the location shooting. I also admired the fact that for the most part, the wolves are believably real and not over-used (although sometimes their behavior is script-convenient rather than realistic). But yeah, the ending is cringe-inducing, Ottway’s motivation is repeatedly convoluted and contradictory, and the film’s internal logic is weak.

  2. Had I bought Ottway’s overall character arc (from despair to eye of the tiger) I’d have been more kind to the movie overall, but I never really did, but then if I was suicidal and I was in a plane crash in Alaska and had little to live for other htan life itself, I could easily see myself just giving up. But then maybe i’m a total pussy and this movie is calculated to appeal to people (particularly youngish breeders) who want to believe they’re not.

    I’d have liked to have seen more Dermott Mulroney, his character’s arc from campfire to tree scene was the best part of the film. I also liked the dude from that shitty cancelled spy show on AMC, but he didn’t get enough to do.

  3. Thanks for the review, Craig. I heard that it was a great flick from another person, but now I have some trepidation.

  4. Well, to be fair, most people seem to really like it so you might want to get a third opinion

  5. Yeah, I liked it a bit more than Craig but we’re definitely the outliers according to what I’ve seen. Get a second opinion, cause a number of vaunted critics seemed to really enjoy it, and there’s really no accounting for taste when it comes to things like this. A genre film can coast a long way on the charisma of the lead and Liam Neeson has charisma to spare and then some.

  6. I understand your issues but I went with 3.0 to 3.5 on this. There’s enough here to sink your teeth into and the snowy tundra is a scary and mysterious place.

  7. Turns out I have a low tolerance for macho bullshit, so this in the end probably wasn’t the movie for me despite the fact it had a lot more going on than you might otherwise expect.

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