Liam Neeson takes it to a bunch of wolves (no, seriously — furry, cue-the-Prokofiev, all-the-better-to-eat-you-with-my-dear, actual wolves) in The Grey, a movie whose only purpose is really to give us men fighting and occasionally getting eaten by wolves.
Which is not to say that Ottoway (Liam Neeson) is a man without depth. He is, we quickly figure out, sad about a girl. We see his hazy daydreams about a pretty brunette and listen to his voiceover as he writes her a letter — she has left him, this woman he’s all mopey over. (The movie doesn’t specify what that means but when we figure it out definitively at the end it’s not a surprise.) All this dark-night-of-the soul stuff seems even darker and night-ier because he is currently working in Alaska at an oil mining operation. His job? To shoot the wildlife that imperils the other workers. So he glums around with a gun and a sorrowful expression when he actually does have to take down a wolf, contemplating God knows what about life and death and aloneness. No wonder we see him consider turning the gun on himself.
He overcomes his desire for self-annihilation long enough to get on the plane headed for civilization with a cabin full of other grimy oil rig workers. The men all talk about their big plans once they get where they are going but soon the group falls into a sleep. A cold sleep — the puffs of steam we see from their breath (does heat now cost extra on that airline?) and the sudden jolts of the plane let us know that all is not well. The men awaken to find the plane being shaken apart, with screaming and blood and debris all around.
Ottoway, ever the resourceful one, lies down on his bench of seats and double buckles himself in. When he comes to, he’s in a howling snowstorm a ways apart from the rest of the wreckage. He treks over to the crumpled remains of the plane and helps the few living men he finds to get themselves free and bandage their wounds. One man worriedly asks him, what’s happening; I don’t feel right, what’s happening — as blood gushes from an abdominal wound. What’s happening is that you’re dying, Ottoway tells him, and tries to get the man to relax into that good night. Thus do the other men learn that he’s (1) mentally equipped to deal with their perilous situation and (2) a serious badass.
Eventually, seven living men are able to pull themselves out of the wreckage. Ottoway gets them organized finding things they can burn for a fire that night and setting up a kind of temporary camp so they can survive until morning, when they’ll have to start the long hike south. But they quickly learn that simply surviving (a) the freezing temperatures, (b) the wind, (c) the lack of food, (d) their crash-caused wounds and (e) the search for help is not their biggest problem. Their big problem is the wolves. Or, perhaps more specifically, their fangs.
Ottoway shoos away a wolf nibbling on one of the corpses but this brings more members of the pack down on him. After fighting off this initial attempt involving a few wolves, more — based on their eyes, a dozen or more — show up near where the men are riding out the night. Ottoway guesses that this means they may be in the wolves’ hunting ground or even near their den. In an attempt to escape these none-too-neighborly Arctic residents (and perhaps get closer to someplace to find help), the men decide to set out southward the next morning.
Of course, some of them are wounded and the wolves quickly see these stragglers as a tasty snack.
Much as Neeson’s character used ingenuity and available materials to kill an endless number of Eastern European human traffickers in Taken, his Ottoway is able to MacGyver sticks and random airplane flotsam into wolf-fighting weaponry. A take-charge kind of guy, Ottoway inspires, naturally, some bickering and shoving between the men. But eventually we get past all that and get to nothing but a series of man-vs.-wolf encounters, with man usually coming out the worst.
And that’s fine. Frankly, The Grey is exactly as advertised — a movie where Liam Neeson fights wolves. Sure, there’s some stuff about the wife and little bits, here and there, about the family lives of the other men (who might as well be named Dinner, Lunch, Midnight Snack, etc., and aren’t really worth getting attached to). But wisely the movie sticks mostly to fang-vs.-flesh action. I could squint and attempt to pull out and dissect the metaphors for loneliness and spend more time teasing out exactly what the movie is trying to say with its scenes of Ottoway’s relationship with his dad. (I suspect it’s trying to say “hey, we can’t have wolves on the screen for the whole 117 minutes; trainers cost money.”) But that’s not really what this movie-going experience is about. The Grey offers a simple, bordering on simplistic, blueprint for a film, but because you are getting exactly what you expect, it works. B
Rated R for violence/disturbing content including bloody images and for pervasive language. Directed by Joe Carnahan with a screenplay by Carnahan & Ian Mackenzie Jeffers (from a short story by Jeffers), The Grey is an hour and 57 minutes long and is distributed by Open Roads.