Sunday, January 29, 2012
In Theaters: THE GREY (2012)
(US - 2012)
Directed by Joe Carnahan. Written by Joe Carnahan and Ian McKenzie Jeffers. Cast: Liam Neeson, Frank Grillo, Dermot Mulroney, Dallas Roberts, James Badge Dale, Nonso Anozie, Joe Anderson, Ben Bray. (R, 117 mins)
Liam Neeson vs. a pack of wolves.
That's the selling point of THE GREY and it's enough to get people in the theater. Neeson's place in film history was already secured nearly two decades ago with SCHINDLER'S LIST, and as the years went on, he always stayed busy, starring in Oscar bait like KINSEY and appearing in the occasional blockbuster like STAR WARS EPISODE I: THE PHANTOM MENACE and BATMAN BEGINS. But in 2009, at the age of 57, something unexpected happened: Neeson suddenly became a major action star.
TAKEN was released in the US in February 2009, a full calendar year after it came out in its native France. US distributor 20th Century Fox almost sent it straight-to-DVD before someone decided to put it in theaters on Super Bowl weekend, not really the best time to release an action movie. No one expected TAKEN to become the blockbuster that it did, and Neeson is *the* reason it exploded. It's an entertaining, if inherently ludicrous film that thrives on Neeson's gritty, driven, thoroughly believable performance. Without Neeson, it would've been another DTV action thriller. But with him, it's a modern action classic.
Neeson brings that same grit to THE GREY, though unlike TAKEN, it's a much more serious film. And that's the unexpected element, considering it's directed and co-written by Joe Carnahan, a filmmaker not known for restraint or nuance. Carnahan's NARC (2002) is a mean, top-notch cop thriller, but he also made the entertainingly trashy guilty pleasure SMOKIN' ACES (2007) and THE A-TEAM (2010). Carnahan's films have a macho, over-the-top, boys-being-boys demeanor to them, but THE GREY finds him making a credible bid to be Taken Seriously. Yes, there's the "Liam Neeson vs. a pack of wolves" element, but THE GREY is a film of surprising character depth and unexpected emotion. Carnahan's manly-man instincts are on full display, but it's just on the exterior. The men in THE GREY are "scared shitless" to quote one of them, and they're man enough to admit it. These aren't action heroes. They're normal people trying to survive and they really don't know what to do.
Neeson is Ottway, a suicidal loner who works as a sharpshooter for an Alaska drilling facility, picking off marauding wolves when they come too close to the workers. A large group of oil company employees are on a flight to Anchorage when the plane goes down in one cinema's most terrifying plane crashes. Seven survivors--Ottway, Talget (Dermot Mulroney), Hendrick (Dallas Roberts), Diaz (Frank Grillo), Burke (Nonso Anozie), Flannery (Joe Anderson), and Hernandez (Ben Bray). An eighth man, Lewenden (James Badge Dale) dies just after the crash and is calmed and comforted by Ottway in a way that'll make you wish Liam Neeson could be there for all of us when it's our time to go. The men build a fire and while they're deciding what to do, the wolves start appearing. As part of his job, Ottway knows the ways and mindset of the wolfpack and quickly becomes the de facto alpha of the group as they try to survive the elements and the wolves.
As well-written (it's based on the short story Ghost Walker by co-screenwriter Ian McKenzie Jeffers) and directed as this is, THE GREY lives or dies on the strength of its protagonist, and fortunately, Liam Neeson is a guy that most of us would follow straight to hell if he was leading the way. The word gravitas is frequently mentioned when describing Neeson's recent action persona, but even beyond that, he delivers one of his finest performances here. I'm wondering if it's Neeson that brought out the best in Carnahan (the two previously worked together on THE A-TEAM). I certainly get a sense that Neeson trusts Carnahan--it's slowly revealed in fragmented flashbacks throughout that there is deep sadness and an overwhelming tragedy in Ottway's past, and it's a sadness that Neeson knows only too well in his own life. In these moments, I don't think Neeson is acting. It's often conveyed without words or dialogue, just in brief flashes of an image. It's a brave, frequently soul-baring performance by Neeson, and Carnahan clearly respects him. For a filmmaker as gregariously bombastic as Carnahan has been in the past, this is a huge step forward. But it's not just Neeson--all of the actors are top-notch here, especially WARRIOR's Frank Grillo as Diaz, who tries to challenge Ottway's authority in an obvious comparison to the way the alpha wolf tries to put down a challenge to his own leadership. It's Neeson's show, but all of the characters get their turn in the spotlight for the actors to shine.
It's not front-to-back perfection: the CGI is a little distracting at times, usually in the form of fake breath (or no breath, which happens frequently), and I don't think filmmakers will ever realize that CGI fire looks like shit. The CGI wolves (with animatronic work by KNB) are very nicely done and quite effective.
THE GREY is a grueling, intense experience. Neeson proves again that he's the best at what he does, and Carnahan has shown us that he's finally grown up. THE GREY is a great action film.
And, just because this never gets old: