Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Film Review: The Grey

A plane carrying a group of oil drillers home after a long stint in the Alaskan tundra crashes in the middle of nowhere. While braving the harsh winds and freezing conditions, the survivors are soon faced with the imminent threat of a vicious pack of wolves who are stalking their every move.

Liam Neeson is someone with a very particular set of skills - a man any smart wolf would know to stay away from. Certainly, after taking on the Albanian mafia and dispatching would-be assassins, the trailer for The Grey sets a tone for continued Neeson arse-whooping as he clutches a knife in one hand and straps broken bottles to the other in preparation to do battle with a rabid beast. While such imagery has lead some corners of the internet to rename the film 'Wolf Puncher', it might surprise many to learn that this is actually wildly different than the trailer suggests.

The Grey works on two levels. On the surface it is a popcorn survival flick which pits man against the elements as alpha male John Ottway (Neeson) leads a bunch of roughnecks through snow and forest. In many ways it resembles survival horrors such as Alien, although here there's a bit more going on beneath the ice sheet. Indeed the meat isn't necessarily in its survivalist concept, which is compelling as it is, but in the symbolism of the barren tundra. The setting gives imagery to a man struck by grief, wandering the wilderness in search of answers and meaning. It is a tale as much about resilience against mother nature as it is against the despairing corner of the mind which harbours Ottway's inner demons.

Neeson is brilliant, conveying disconsolation convincingly as the survival of his peers seemingly invigorates him with newfound purpose. This is the kind of guy you want beside you when the world goes to hell in a handbasket, one of those rare people who instinctively acts in a crisis be it either shepherding a dying colleague through their prolonged death or immediately nipping any challenges to his authority in the bud. He is a man's man. No wait, the man. Admittedly the ever diminishing half-dozen men who make up the rest of the survivors are vapid characters at best as we're given family guy, argumentative asshat and massive stoic black man for good measure. However this can be overlooked in that they function in providing meat for the wolves in the survival horror context while representing indistinct avatars in Ottway's own doleful exposition.

Given that director Joe Carnahan's previous works of note were The A-Team and Smokin' Aces, this is actually a pleasantly surprising change of pace. What's great about The Grey is how it can either be enjoyed as a straightforward wilderness survival or something more cerebrally and emotionally taut. While Neeson brings a sobriety to proceedings we are given a palpably tense atmosphere built by a stalking wolf pack and dwindling numbers of personel. Perhaps the only disappointing thing is that for a film which promised a lot of wolf punching, there isn't all too much of it.