There is an air of mystery around Joe Carnahan's "The Grey" as I expected a non-stop action thriller but what I received was a brooding, almost character study of a man who feels he is already at the end of his road when faced with a horrible accident and forced to lead a pack of men to survive the Alaskan wilderness. I was not just surprised by the restraint shown by director Carnahan in both his directing and his script but with the tone his film carried overall. I loved his 2010 "re-imagination" of the cheesy TV show "The A-Team" despite its poor box office return. It was a fun and ridiculous film, but it was clear the guy had a knack for action pieces as well as gritty drama as he also directed the underrated 2002 film "Narc". Carnahan merges his skills here and creates a classic tale of survival with an engaging and heartbreaking group of men that occasionally dips into something more. There are hints of psychological musings throughout the film and it almost makes the film rise above a standard action flick, but even without it this is not your typical, primitive B-movie. The pacing is off and Liam Neeson is both an actor's actor and a man, who since "Taken" has been considered a serious action star. He always added weight to mainstream films like "Batman Begins" and "The Phantom Menace" but that leading turn made his name worthy of the title and he has proven continuously that he deserves it. This is maybe the best display of that as Neeson gives a performance that is both touching in the most human of ways while also displaying his characters intuitive knowledge of his surroundings. He is the alpha male and that is the character we come to learn about. This is not a story about survival in the ways we would normally assume, but is instead a story of survival of the human soul.

John Ottway (Liam Neeson) is assigned to protect oil
workers from the wild wolves that pose a threat.
Neeson plays Ottway, a man who we learn quickly is getting over a part of his life that is now missing. As Neeson makes his way through the small town where he and his colleagues are waiting to fly out we understand he is not in the mood to fraternize with his co-workers or even speak openly to the bartender after downing a few shots. He is readying himself for what he truly desires and the task it will take to get there. From his opening voice over we can sense the deeper tone, the heavier weight this story will hold and that the struggle he and his fellow oil-riggers will soon face is not just to serve the purpose of fulfilling an audience's cravings for action flicks but also a close portrait of a man on the brink. A man who has no fear of death, just a slight bit of remorse. A sense of possible failure that he will let down the only person in life that he truly cared about. We watch as Ottway goes through the motions. He is on the job as the man who has to understand the wolves and shoot them when they get too close to the oil workers. When their plane goes down it is all at once surreal and yet a very real threat that is completely graphic in what it means to our main character. The moment in which the crash happens goes by in an instant and what we are left to look over is a crash site that is a landscape completely pure that is interrupted only by the staggering bits of plane that lay on fire.

The survivors of a horrific plane wreck try to survive the
harsh conditions of the Alaskan wilderness.
Ottway rounds up his fellow survivors and immediately assumes the role of leader. There are only a handful of men left that really matter and shortly after Neeson delivers one of the most touching moments in the film to a dying man in the wreckage we begin to see what he has been left to work with. There is Falnnery (Joe Anderson), the big mouth who doesn't know when to shut up. We have Hendrick (Dallas Roberts) a loyal and spiritual man that believes in Ottway, as well as Frank Grillo as Diaz, the rebel, and Dermont Mulroney as Talget, the peacekeeper. Each could have been sketched out a little more and lend more of their life and beliefs to the struggle that our protagonist is dealing with, but nonetheless each character is much less stock than they could have been. Mulroney and Roberts are to be comended for their small but integral contributions to the film as characters who at least attempt to get to know Ottway for the man he is rather than simply existing to create conflict. Although it is nice to see Neeson's Ottway put Diaz in his place when the time comes this also presents the one real discretion I had with the film. While I appreciate the film strived to be more that the average action flick I found it dragging at certain points where it could have used a little bit of excitement or better pacing. There is nothing wrong with a survival saga but when it is pitched as an action epic it should contain a little more brawls than "The Grey" actually does. Moments of quick intensity such as when the guys cliff dive or run into the trees to escape the always lurking wolves are too far between. It is by its own luck that the character and actor holding down the lead role make the film a consistently engaging character study. It could have surely done with a little more action to live up to its label, but this is still a solid January release that goes for more rather than just settling for what is expected.

Ottway approaches Diaz (Frank Grillo) in how to scare the
ever-present wolves away.
That is the element that stands out as the credits begin to roll. This is not a story that we know is going to end with some helicopter coming to the rescue, in fact we almost know from the very beginning there is no hope for these guys, but we still like to hold out hope. When it comes down to that final scene though we realize the message, or more the idea, of the movie is not that it is whether you live to fight the fight but more about accepting that you've lost when the time comes and finding peace in that. Throughout the film we are given a short verse that Ottway recalls hanging on the wall of his childhood home. A verse his father wrote that goes, "Once more into the fray. Into the last good fight I'll ever know. Live and die on this day. Live and die on this day." It of course carries much meaning for our hero and in those closing minutes we understand fully how much weight it actually does carry. Only Neeson could deliver such lines wth as much meaning and heart and make the audience feel something. It is a great performance and it takes "The Grey" to a level that I didn't expect it to reach. Though Carnahan will not get to make his "A-Team" sequel with Neeson it is lucky for him that Neeson agreed to this and allowed both of their careers a film that lends each credibility and commercial success. If you enjoy all out action films this may tend to be a little lighter than you need, but for those looking for a story that is both compelling and effective you will have to wander no further than into "The Grey".

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