Almost three years to the day after Taken opened in the US and made us all turn our heads in surprise, Liam Neeson is still laying claim to his new found role as a bonafide action hero. Though his 60th birthday is coming up this summer, Neeson has re-established himself as a star through a series of tough guy roles, a trend that continued with this weekend's release of The Grey.
Re-uniting Neeson with The A-Team director, Joe Carnahan, The Grey lets Neeson take charge as a hired gun whose job is to eliminate wolves at an Alaskan outpost. That job lasts for about two scenes - long enough to establish via voice over and a shot of him preparing to kill himself - setting up the character's depressed mental state just before he's involved in a freak plane explosion/crash that leaves him and a handful of less hero-esque survivors stranded in the middle of a frozen wasteland.
The biggest problem that Neeson and his followers have to deal with? Wolves, naturally. Many will argue about the use of wolves in the film - some think the director and his crew were abusive toward animals, some think it's silly to assume that wolves would hunt a pack of humans who stand up to them repeatedly - but there are wolves in the movie nonetheless. I'm not an animalologist or a crazy PETA person (You guys: MEAT TASTES AWESOME!), so I'm not gonna comment on any of those speculations. I'll just say that the wolves look incredibly real and are pretty intimidating foes, and they serve their purpose as a plot device in Carnahan's film.
You see, the movie isn't about the wolves. It's about the men and their struggle to survive. You're probably groaning at how cliche that comment is, and you have every right to - most every movie ever made is about the characters' struggle, and a focused "survival" movie like this is nothing new. The most interesting thing about the struggle is the mental state of Neeson's character, whose depression at times makes the viewer wonder if he's a liability to the others on this journey.
The film gets a little heavy handed at times - I particularly groaned at a scene in which Neeson stands up to a challenge from a follower right after the group hears Neeson explain the idea of "Alpha and Omega" wolves to the men - but there are some really interesting moments peppered throughout the film. Moments when the characters reflect upon what they have to live for really hit home, and the opposing viewpoints of Neeson's jaded commentary help strengthen the story. The supporting performances are serviceable, most notably veteran character actor Dermot Mulroney in an almost unrecognizable role as one of the men, and his comments throughout the journey are a welcome addition to the film.
(The most interesting thing I learned after reading about the film today was that the producers advertised the film directly to Christian viewers, which boggles my mind when I consider the main character's vocal disdain toward religion throughout the film. I'd absolutely love to see the 'film companion' that was distributed to religious groups, because I seriously can't fathom what Carnahan and his producers intended to say to Christians.)
The tone of the film is most endearing to me when I look at the director, Carnahan, whose bombastic last two films (Smokin' Aces and The A-Team) lacked the focus on character that was present in his breathtaking debut film, Narc. The fact that I'm talking about the film's attempts to carry a deeper message and to be a character-driven action film is a huge improvement on those fun-but-pointless films. I'm just not sure I think everything about The Grey works. The proceedings become pretty repetitive in the second act - deal with attack, philosophize, argue, repeat - and the momentum that the director and the star bring to the film kind of stalls out at times. I'm usually the last person to use the dreaded "boring" word about a film, but I can't deny that The Grey had me on the edge of sleep a few times.
In the end, I'm really not sure what I think about The Grey. Some of what it offers is incredibly effective, and some of it had me tired and ready for more. It's definitely not a movie for the masses like Taken was three years ago, and an ambiguous ending (Make sure you stay till after the credits!) will probably divide audiences too. I liked the ending, I just wasn't wild about the path the film took to get there. Is it a good film? For the most part, yes. But I'm not ready to proclaim it a must-see addition to the new year just yet. Perhaps you'll disagree.