There’s nowhere near as much wolf punching as the trailers for “The Grey” would suggest, leaving Liam Neeson to spend the duration of the film fighting internal beasts rather than external ones.
It’s a tale of survival, not only for the group of blue collar oil workers stranded in the Alaskan tundra after a plane crash leaves them amidst a den of wolves, but for the film’s director Joe Carnahan who has expended his considerable talent in the years since the 2002 cop drama “Narc” on flashy action exercises that at their best were hollow-tipped bombast like “The A-Team” or at worst, just hollow like “Smokin’ Aces.” As enjoyable as the former was as a guilty pleasure, the kudos on “Narc” appeared to push Carnahan further towards the macho posturing that were his characters’ Achilles heel, but here at the end of the earth, a place that looks more like a Ray Liotta-patrolled Detroit than a Las Vegas where Jeremy Piven’s a headliner, the only cool is the frigid cold.
Regardless of where Neeson’s Ottway was stationed, there would be a chill in his solemn voiceover that opens “The Grey.” A hunter who’s more likely to pull a gun on himself after the loss of his wife, he’s thinking of her when Carnahan throws down the gauntlet early in the film, literally ripping him away from the deceased missus during a dream he’s having to pull him into the panic of a rickety aircraft headed straight towards the ground. He’s already onhand to help protect the oilmen from wild predators, but once there are only seven left from what appeared to be the 30 who boarded the plane, he becomes, as the one with nothing to lose, the guard of the group’s precarious mental state as much as their physical well-being, though his burly crew can largely take care of themselves.
The unlikely trio of Dermot Mulroney, Dallas Roberts and Frank Grillo form the backbone of the group, sturdy in fortitude and the tough talk that’s long been Carnahan’s specialty. They would disappear into their roles even without the blinding snow they must trudge through on the road to nowhere. And while “The Grey” inevitably follows a trail that’s been far more traversed than the untouched earth Ottway and his men find themselves on, it remains engaging since death may be around every corner, but the offhand rapport between the men remains lively. With fearful chiding and self-aware allusions made to MacGyver and “Alive,” the film strikes a balance between the playful and serious, yet those postmodern references, as well as Carnahan's liberation of the F-word in Neeson's vocabulary, are about the only thing in "The Grey" which isn't old fashioned.
Since that less-is-more philosophy extends to those aforementioned wolf brawls, “The Grey” could certainly be a disappointment if you enter with the wrong expectations, but rather than having a contemporary edge, its patience is what sharpens the ultimate impact. Carnahan makes the action more intense in sporadic, disorienting bursts, with the harbinger of danger whether it's a blistering snow flurry or a relentless wolf attack often blurred and overwhelming you as much as its victim onscreen. The plane crash is especially affecting through the film's deft use of editing and sound design, blanking out the senses as chaos takes over and leaving one helpless but to witness the carnage.
Carnahan may overplay his hand at times with occasional respites from the snow to sepia-toned flashbacks to Ottway’s father and the recitation of a poem about fighting the good fight that flirt with matters of life beyond mortality in a way that would likely be laughed off as New Agey BS by his own characters. Yet there’s no doubt “The Grey” is the first film since “Narc” where Carnahan’s words and prowess for action have come together so harmoniously, making the howls in the background even more jarring.