Monday, January 30, 2012

Bare-Knuckle Boxes with Wolves

In Taken they kidnapped Liam Neeson's daughter. In Unknown they stole his identity. In this film, they take... his wife, his civilization and his body heat? As awkward as comparisons get, it's an apt one for Neeson's newest thriller, The Grey. Once known for his thinking man's roles, Neeson has reinvented himself as an action hero these past couple of years. While the actor has more than enough talent to be believable in such roles, I commented last year how the trope of taking things from his characters in order to elicit payback was already getting a bit old. So when The Grey promised to deliver that same plot thread - taking everything away from Neeson while pitting him against man-eating wolves - one could be forgiven for thinking that things would not be so different. Sure, Neeson's great white hunter is plopped in the wintry wilds of Alaska with little enough to keep him vertical, but with all that, isn't this just another film where we take stuff from him to see what happens? Haven't we seen all this before? As it so happens, perhaps not.

A failed proposal for a seventh Lost season
John Ottoway (Neeson) is a security guard at a remote Alaskan oil drilling site, protecting the workers from the hunting wolves who creep into the territory. He hasn't been happy since his wife left him, and considers it his lot to live amongst the ex-cons and assholes who inhabit this type of workplace in the middle of nowhere. On the last day on the job, he and several of his crew are flying back to civilization when their plane crashes amid a wild snow storm, it is up to the survivalist Ottoway to lead the other survivors to safety. It's not just the sub-freezing temperatures and the lack of food that threatens to shorten their lifespans however, as the half-dozen men find themselves relentlessly hunted by a large pack of predatory wolves, who are happy to pick the men off one by one to fill their own bellies.

You won't recognize those faces after they've been ripped clean off
Based on the Ian Mackenzie short story "Ghost Walker", The Grey reunites Neeson with director Joe Carnahan, who was the creative force behind 2010's underrated The A-Team. Unlike that exciting popcorn action thriller, however, things are a bit more believable in this go around. Though the tale has its fair share of close calls, there are no mid-air escapes from flying aircraft in parachuting tanks. By grounding the story firmly in reality, Carnahan had to do an excellent job to avoid the entire narrative becoming "party goes to point A, character X dies, party goes to point B" throughout. Thankfully, Carnahan was indeed up to the job, and he does some amazing things by using weather elements to obscure attacking wolves and creating tension through obscuring what the audience can see to only slightly more than the characters can. He even lines up some beautiful shots when given the option, though that's kept thankfully to a minimum to make the wide open spaces of the outside world feel extremely claustrophobic. Despite the talent involved, it's mother nature that becomes the true star of The Grey; every time we find our eyes searching an entire shot for potential dangers, the film has succeeded in scaring the living crap out of us, seemingly without trying.

Is there no problem booze can't solve?
Back to the talent, however; this might be the best performance I've seen from Neeson in years, and John Ottoway is easily the best of his action-themed characters, with flaws, demons, and burdens to overcome beyond the physical. Neeson is actually allowed to express depth in his character beyond displaying a throaty growl when annoyed, and the effect is staggering: Ottoway becomes easy to root for and sympathize with, even as his backstory is slowly plumbed through over the course of the film. Another surprising development is how many of the secondary characters are actually detailed to the point of likable, especially Frank Grillo as Diaz, a hard-shelled bastard and chief rival of Ottoway. Also managing to stand out were Dermot Mulroney, Joe Anderson (who I last saw in the great 2010 film The Crazies) and Dallas Roberts as fellow survivors caught in an unbelievable scenario. What impressed me most was that Carnahan did not just allow these characters to be disposable stand-ins and let Neeson run the show. While those who get in-depth introspection do so only after a few of their fellows have become dog chow, the levels to which they are risen to is remarkable, and by the end you're hoping your favorite can make that leap, can escape those sharp teeth just a little while longer.

Next stop for these guys: Cancun!
Another nice addition was the question of faith, and how people can believe in an almighty God or an afterlife even in the face of such disaster (or in the case of some characters, their inability to embrace the idea). It's no minor plot thread, as the film's hardships are as much spiritual as they are physical. In one scene, Ottoway curses God, demanding that he offer some proof of his existence so that he can believe in something, only to bitterly come to the conclusion that he can only rely on himself. The elements of fear and fighting for survival also play major parts, and none of these things feel forced or out of place when actively present in the film. These characters aren't planning to survive for the plain sake of surviving, and it's refreshing to see that here.

Yup, he's getting too old for this shit...
But in the end, it's Neeson's show, as we all knew it would be. What we didn't know was that for all intents and purposes, The Grey would raise Neeson to new heights. The aging star expects that he'll work these kinds of films for another year or so (as long as his knees can handle it, he says). If his action films could all be up to the same caliber as The Grey, I'd have no cause to argue. Far better than much of his recent work, it's the #2 movie of 2012. It's not just an action flick. It's not just a Liam Neeson vehicle. It's quality cinema, and well worth your time.

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