How do you review a movie that wasn’t great, but didn’t suck? A movie that pulled you in, but not far enough in that you were absorbed? A film that wasn’t bad, but didn’t feel like it was made for you? Such were the questions I asked myself before I sat down to review The Grey, a movie about a group of men trying to survive in the cold harsh winter (of their discontent) of Alaska, wolves circling around them ready for dinner. It’s an interesting character study, with the group of tough guys slowly breaking down one by one. But gorgeous views of Alaska and the well-done animatronic wolves weren’t enough. For me, I wanted more.
The Grey is a man vs. nature film, and you need to be a dude (or in a dude frame of mind) to really get into this film. Or perhaps it just that this film suffers from a lack of dramatic structure. You can easily pick out the movies director/screenwriter Joe Carnahan (The A Team, Smokin’ Aces) loves as this movie unspools. Go ahead; you won’t miss much if your mind wanders. The Thing (scary!cold), Alive (dudes survive a plane crash!), Ghost and the Darkness (scary!animals), Wolfen (wolves! eek!), Solaris (dead wife visions!) Cliffhanger (daring feats of ice bravery!) But I like to think of The Grey as Deliverance. With wolves. Cue the banjo music…oh wait, wolves don’t have opposable thumbs. No wonder they’re pissed.
Ottaway is a dude with ISSUES. Exactly what those are isn’t readily apparent at first, but his life of one huge suck has landed him in Alaska as a wolf killer. I know, that pissed me off too. See, Alaska has oil, and Alaska has wolves. In order to get to the oil, the wolves need to be kept away from the oil drillers. But instead of trying to set up a catch-and-release plan (wolves are on the endangered species list in much of the U.S., after all), the corporation in charge decides to just gun ‘em down. I’m sure that won’t come back to haunt ‘em later.
Oh wait, it does! As the group of
redshirts society’s cast-offs (according to Ottaway in voice-over, Alaskan oil drilling is a job of last resort) head to the drilling area, their plane crashes. After figuring out who survived, the remaining men realize they have no idea where they are, and they probably won’t be rescued. No guns. No weapons except a small knife or three. Big (BIG) wolves. You know, the ones Ottaway has been killing. Good luck, y’all! As the movie continues, our fearless band of assholes become a fearful band of tired, cold, hungry guys; think Wild Hogs without the humor, warm weather, or homoerotic subtext. The survivors get picked off one by one, quicker than you can say Agatha Christie. And then there were none? If I told you, that’d be cheating.
You can see every move, every gotcha, practically every line as if it were telegraphed by a second-rate fighter. But still it has the ability to grab your attention from time to time. In Ottaway’s soliloquy at the end of the movie, Liam Neeson brings out some of the best acting I’ve seen in awhile, and that’s after watching months of amazing, Oscar-nominated actors strut their stuff. But after the movie spent so much time holding it’s audience at arms length, I couldn’t help but hear “All I Need Is A Miracle” and “Show Me What I’m Looking For” playing in my head. It’s too bad that such a fine performance turns into borderline bombast when compared to to the mediocrity of the rest of the film. That’s not on the actors, all of whom make you feel like you’re watching real life. It’s on Carnahan’s weak script and over-reliance on cheap “surprises” instead of action that advances a plot. Honey, this idea didn’t work in The A Team, and it doesn’t work here. Move on. The one thing Carnahan did right is casting Neeson; Bradley Cooper was first cast in the lead, but even with a star turn in Limitless, Cooper doesn’t have the gravitas needed to pull off that character. Yet. Oh, and check out Dermot Mulroney as one of the survivors; his grizzled, overgrown facade is worlds away from the polished yuppie in The Wedding Date and My Best Friend’s Wedding.
The Grey is a film that is tempting and entrancing, much like the ghostly visions Ottaway has of his wife. But like those visions, they only serve to remind you of what you wish you had. If you’re a dude, and you enjoy books like Call of the Wild, Catcher in the Rye and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, you will probably love this film. And I will abide by your decision.