Thursday, January 26, 2012

Liam Neeson vs. wilderness and wolves

The Grey takes us deep into the Alaskan wild for a mixture of action and horror.

In the new movie The Grey, Liam Neeson dances with wolves that, for the most part, get the best of a band of grizzled oil rig workers who are stranded in the Alaskan wilderness after a harrowing plane crash.

I don’t know if Neeson is having trouble finding quality scripts or whether he enjoys making these kinds of movies, but he certainly gives action directors their money's worth by bringing instant gravitas to a genre that’s not always taken seriously.

In this case, Neeson – who also starred in Taken and Unknown -- has signed on for a movie that sets action and horror against an inhospitable and frozen landscape.

Once the surviving workers get their bearings, it becomes clear that they’ve quickly made the transition from gritty hard guys to potential wolf food. And it doesn’t take long for director Joe Carnahan, who directed Neeson in the A-Team, to show us the wolves, large, ferocious howlers that are naturally cunning and lacking in mercy, sort of like film critics.

Neeson’s John Ottway, an emotionally wounded man who’s charged with shooting wolves that threaten the oil workers, begins the movie at a forbidding-looking Alaskan drilling site. He's in such a distraught state that he even contemplates suicide.

Ottway obviously has known some other kind of life. He seems to have gone to Alaska in the same way that an earlier generation of movie characters joined the French Foreign Legion. I guess we’re meant to think that the plane crash forces Ottway into a last-ditch attempt at engagement.

The crew that tries to escape the crash scene with Ottway is appropriately motley. The men are differentiated from one another in mostly expected ways. Frank Grillo, for example, portrays an ex-con whose belligerence becomes his defining trait. He’s quick to challenge Ottway’s leadership, even though it’s clear that Ottway has plenty of wilderness savvy.

Obviously, many in this small band will die, and, as is often the case with such movies, you can amuse yourself by speculating about the order in which the unlucky will be picked apart by wolves. You also can brace for the film’s more “philosophical” moments, which play like so much dorm-discussion baloney.

Much is made of a poem (“Once More Into the Fray”) that Ottway says his father wrote. It’s the kind of poetry that could be appreciated only by someone who’s never read a good poem; sort of Jack London meets a Boy Scout handbook.

But if the movie has a message, you’ll find it in the poem: Grit your teeth and do battle with hostile nature.

Carnahan uses gauzy but obvious flashbacks to fill in a blank that doesn’t need filling; they explain why Ottway tends to be so damn morose.

Hey, I’m as frightened by an assortment (or so I've read) of real wolves, puppets and animatronics as the next guy. Some of the scenes in The Grey are rich with apprehension, and a few of the movie's twists even go against the grain of formula

Still, it would have taken a better-written movie to get me to leap whole-heartedly into this glum and frozen fray.

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