“Live or die on this day.” Your chances for the former are greatly increased if you’re Liam Neeson.
The Grey stars the towering, two-fisted Irish actor as John Ottway, a sharpshooter who protects an Alaska oil refinery from wildlife attacks (mostly wolves, by the way). Ottway is a loner haunted by the memories of a lost love (hmm‚Ä¶ we’ll get to that later), a near-suicidal sad sack whose will to live is given a sudden shot of adrenaline after he and a few other passengers (including Dermot Mulroney, Dallas Roberts, Frank Grillo and Nonso Anozie) survive a plane crash that leaves them stranded in the wintry wilderness. Keeping warm and finding food are easy tasks compared to dealing with the real threat at hand as they trudge their way toward (hopefully) civilization: a pack of wolves that don’t take too kindly to intruders on their turf.
The Grey is a great adventure flick, and Neeson is great in it. Its closest cinematic cousin, The Edge (1997), is pretty damn terrific (that’s the one with Anthony Hopkins, Alec Baldwin and Bart the Bear), but The Grey might ultimately be the better film; while the screenplay by Ian MacKenzie Jeffers and Joe Carnahan doesn’t quite have the endlessly quotable, alpha-male battle of wits that made up David Mamet’s script for The Edge, it more than compensates by having a steely narrative focus from start to finish as well as a strong sense of awe and mystery at the terrible beauty of nature and how futile it might be for mere mortal men to stand against it.
That sense of existential dread that nonetheless inspires remarkable courage is what makes The Grey heavier — and perhaps more relevant — than most of its action-adventure kin. While the film is relentlessly bleak as the situation goes from bad to unimaginably worse seemingly by the minute, its also consistently inspiring as the group of survivors — who are, indeed, getting picked off one by one by the wolves or sometimes just Mother Nature herself — still (for the most part) choose to stand and fight, even though all logic demands they just lay down and die. There’s “true grit” in this movie, the kind that would make both Jack London and Ernest Hemingway proud, and that keeps it from being more than just another survival movie that follows an almost video-game-like structure of increasingly more challenging “levels.”
However, the best thing about this movie, besides Joe Carnahan’s intense and rowdy direction, is Liam Neeson. Neeson’s been receiving a lot of criticism over the past few years for being an actor who, at 59, suddenly seems to be content to earn quick (and, I’m assuming, rather big) paychecks by starring in entertaining but decidedly rather “lowbrow” films such as Taken, Unknown and The A-Team. True, once upon a time, he seemed to have more, I dunno, noble goals and standards as an “artist” as he appeared in “classier” films such as Schindler’s List, Kinsey and Michael Collins. What gives? Not that we’re really complaining, but why did he suddenly go from being the guy who headlined Steven Spielberg’s first experiment with “serious” filmmaking to the guy who punched out everyone in France after his daughter was sold into sex slavery?
One has to wonder whether Neeson has been surrounding himself with fisticuffs, gunfire and explosions as a way to cope with the loss of his wife, Natasha Richardson, who died suddenly in 2009 at the age of 45 from a head injury she got while skiing. The real-life parallels bring an even more melancholy weight to Neeson’s Ottway being haunted — and, ultimately, inspired — by visions of his lost wife. The Grey is about dealing with loss and adversity with bravery, self-respect and dignity. It’s nice to think that Ottway’s hard-won triumph might also be Neeson’s — and that maybe he’ll soon decide whether he needs to keep the volume up so high all the time.