The Liam Neeson we've all come to know after his Oscar-nominated turn as Oskar Schindler is gone, perhaps for good. In his place, we find a grizzled wannabe action star playing a lifeless character. No, this isn't a review of Taken. This is a review of The Grey, a cold as ice (tee hee hee) action drama from Narc director Joe Carnahan. After a plane crash in Alaska, a group of oil riggers must fight against the cold, the wildlife and (you guessed it) each other in hopes of survival.
We focus on Ottway (Neeson), a depressed sniper working for an oil company deep in the frozen barrens. Why would an oil company need a sniper, you ask? Well, his job is to pick off the many wolves that prowl the pipeline sites in search of a tasty human snack. And as you'd expect from this post-Taken Liam Neeson, Ottway is damn good at his job. Sadly this time around, his "very particular set of skills" does not include selecting good screenplays.
But Ottway's problems do not end with the plane crash. He has personal demons that endlessly haunt him, a subplot that never delivers any payoff. His dreams give us some insight into his past/depression but, those are mainly used as cool transitions from scene to scene. Why the heck are we supposed to feel bad for this character?
When we meet Ottway, he is slugging back shots of tough-guy whiskey in a make-shift Arctic tavern. He tells us that he once had a wife, who subsequently abandoned him. Okay, but why did she abandon you? He does not say. If your friend told you that his girlfriend dumped him but he won't say what her reasons were, then logically, I'd say it was probably his fault. But despite some flaws in the writing, the world Ottway inhabits has been masterfully constructed.
For instance: You can really feel the cold; that stinging sensation of ice freezing into your hair and that screaming, brutal wind. You can feel it. The staging of scenes is completely authentic, save for a few obviously necessary CGI moments. It doesn't feel like a movie that was shot on a studio lot, as Carnahan seemingly forced his actors out into the blistering cold.
On the other hand, Dermot Mulroney, a fantastic actor, is particularly wasted in this role as he is given almost nothing to do until an admittedly terrific and suspenseful moment in the third act. Think fear of heights. Visually, Carnahan knows what he is doing and demonstrates that in spades. The heights sequence is phenomenally executed (as is the plane crash), but ostensibly, Carnahan cannot resist his urge to amp up the bleakness. And so, when the wolves show up, they show with a vengeance. (Quite literally, as one character points out: "They're not eating. They're just killing.")
And folks, these ain't yo' daddy's wolves! These are bad-ass Joe Carnahan super wolves! They jump and howl and snarl and frankly, come across like a sound engineer decided to raid the "Scary Sounds" folder on his computer desktop. I was half expecting The Grey to morph into a monster/alien movie, given the ridiculous sounds coming from off camera.
Carnahan's past work has displayed a surprisingly acute attention to character and emotion. In Smokin' Aces, after committing a brutal murder, a hit man comforts his dying victim with the haunting words: "Don't let my face be the last thing you see. I fear heaven may hold it against you." The unexpected depth and sensitivity of many of the violent thugs he writes about is one of Carnahan's most unique qualities as a screenwriter. The same can be said of Narc. None of that detail is displayed here.
As intriguing as his choice of source material (a short story by Ian Mackenzie Jeffers) may be, Carnahan's delivery feels (no pun intended) glacial. (Alright, maybe that was intended) We learn so little about the Neeson character that it becomes difficult to identify with him. His voiceover misleadingly (and pointlessly) describes the oil roughnecks -- his co workers and co-passengers on the doomed flight -- as the scum of the earth, but as we get to know them, we find that is not the case at all. Most are men who have simply been away from their homes and families for too long. Or who knows? Perhaps all the really evil people died in the crash.
In a bizarrely disappointing turn, Carnahan stages a climactic scene (next to a shallow river) so poorly that Neeson is left standing in frame, mutely staring at the ground while two side characters have an heartfelt chat for nearly three straight minutes. In those moments, Neeson's facial expression is that of an actor who does not know he is in the frame, an amateurish flaw in an otherwise skillfully shot film.
Joe Carnahan has displayed in the past that he is a talented commercial filmmaker with serious ambitions. (One of his upcoming projects is an adaptation of the acclaimed James Ellroy novel, "White Jazz".) But watching The Grey is very much like what I'd imagine it was like making The Grey...
Grim and unpleasant.
Note: If you're disturbed by the sight of wolves eating people (I'm lookin' at you Aunt Dorrie!), you may want to skip this one. In fact, almost 25% of the movie is comprised of shots of CGI wolves lurking in the shadows, engaging in terse staring contests with Liam Neeson.
Tony Hinds is a Canadian writer who studied film at the University of Winnipeg. In addition to ShowbizMonkeys.com, Tony has reviewed films for Step On Magazine and The Uniter. You can find Tony on Twitter.