In “The Grey,” it’s nice to see Liam Neeson back in a movie where he looks like he’s enjoying himself as opposed to picking up an easy paycheck, which is what he seems to have been doing that for the past couple of years. You forget the 59-year-old Irish actor can be quite good. He doesn’t play a campy character, as he did in 2010’s “Clash of the Titans” and he’s not stuck in a confusing cover-up movie like he was in last year’s “Unknown.” This time he’s back to playing someone full of wisdom who can also kick butt in a simple, straightforward action film.
He holds a natural, cool screen presence and there’s something soothing about his slightly gravely Irish accented voice. He plays Ottaway (even his name is wise), a man stricken with grief (his wife died sometime off screen). He works on an oil drilling team up in Alaska and is a master of wolves. When they sniff around the place, he kills them. On his way back from the camp the plane he’s on goes down and he along with others find themselves stranded in the wild artic where they are stalked by wolves. (Talk about irony!)
Neeson’s character is so interesting that if the director and co-writer Joe Carnahan (along with Ian McKenzie Jeffers) had found a way to make the film only about him stranded and having to face his demons as well as the wolves, “The Grey” would have been very good, but unfortunately he’s stuck with a lackluster supporting cast of characters. They’re a fighting, cussing, meat headed bunch of males that may as well be labeled “wolf food.” There’s the goofy joker who irritates Ottaway, there’s the token black man, and then of course there’s the one who may as well be wearing a nametag that says “Hi! I’m going to be unpleasant for most of the movie until right before I die when I have my one redeeming moment.” And some others that just provide additional kills.
It’s not that they’re terrible, it’s just that (with Neeson) they are out of place in this movie. After the plane goes down Ottaway goes immediately into survivalist mode. He makes a fire and directs the others to find food and supplies and when the wolves come sniffing around he enlightens them on wolf behavior. And finally he leads them off into the wilderness to find help. Whenever Ottaway interacts with the others (when they stop and make a fire, for example) it feels like an old man trying to hang out at a young hip nightclub. This isn’t to say that Neeson is pathetic; he’s just on a completely different level. He deserves better.
As for the rest of the movie, “The Grey” plays like a typical “and then there were fewer” type of action movie. The group travels by day and camps by night, whilst dropping like flies until only one remains. (I bet you can figure out who that is). But at least it’s a good old-fashioned Man vs. Nature movie. No aliens or supernatural beings to be found, only wolves and other obstacles like the coldness and a river, which is truly scary.
And hey, at the very least you learn about wolves. When they first start attacking I wondered to myself “O.K, how often do wolves stalk and kill humans?” Then Wolf Whisperer Ottaway explains that they will if you’re near their den. Is there anything this man doesn’t know?