I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Liam Neeson's new film "The Grey". Not because of Liam Neeson; he has developed into quite an action star over the last few years, bringing an undeniable, believeable intensity to silly, over-the-top genre films. I was surprised to learn the film was co-written and directed by Joe Carnahan, the writer and director of "Smokin' Aces" and "The A-Team", two of my least favorite films ever.
Neeson has transformed himself from respected independent film actor and dramatic leading man to a viable action star, appearing in the improbably silly Luc Besson film "Taken", made more palatable and interesting by his completely serious and believable performance. It was also a hit, so he followed that with "Unknown", another film made so much better by his commanding persona. Another hit. Now, we have "The Grey".
Ottway (Neeson) is a guard at an oil drilling facility in the farthest reaches of the Alaskan tundra. The men who work here do dangerous work for high pay and seem to spend their off-time drinking to help them forget where they are. Ottway accompanies the men when they leave the base and keeps them safe from hunting wolves. The men seem to live for their R & R back in civilization and rowdily crowd onto the plane eager for the trip to Anchorage.. Shortly after the plane takes off, it runs into turbulence and crashes. Ottway and a handful of survivors band together and attempt to get back to civilization. But they soon realize they have to deal with more than just the elements, the plane crash landed in the middle of a pack of wolves. And they're hungry.
The survivors include Talget (Dermot Mulroney), Hendrick (Dallas Roberts, TV's "The Good Wife", "3:10 to Yuma"), Diaz (Frank Grillo, "Warrior", TV's "The Gates"), Burke (Nonso Anozie, "Conan the Barbarian"), Flannery (Joe Anderson, TV's "The River"), Hernandez (Ben Bray) and Lewenden (James Badge Dale, "Shame", "The Departed"). Each of these men has different backgrounds, strengths and problems all of which will lead to complications for the group.
Carnahan spends a significant amount of time establishing Ottway's character, allowing us to watch him in the strange environment of this oil drilling station. We spend some time listening to him illustrate his thoughts. We watch some brief snippets of dreams, remembrances back to time he spent with his wife. This helps to establish why it is so important for him to make it back to civilization, why it is so important for him to survive. We watch as he does his job, scanning the horizon for wolves near the workers, protecting the humans from the wild beasts. Later we watch as he deals with the loneliness, the isolation of this outpost.
These moments are very effective and help us get into Ottway's mind and become a part of his journey.
But as great as these are, the other characters are not established as well. Throughout the journey, as the men make their way across the snow and ice, they share remembrances, stories and dreams, giving us a brief insight into their lives. We learn a little about them, enough I guess, given the significance of these characters, but the detail pales in comparison to Neeson. I can't help but wonder what someone like Michael Mann might have done. Every character in "Heat" has some backstory.
As the rowdy men crowd onto the plane, anxious for some R & R, we watch the technicians trying to deice the wings and get the aircraft moving. During the flight, we get our first glimpse of most of the characters and start to learn about them. But because there are so many of them, it is difficult to set them apart.
As soon as the plane begins to experience trouble, you know you are in for something different. It just looks and feels different, more authentic, more intense. And the moment of the plane crash is particularly harrowing. You really feel as though you are in the plane with the men. I doubt this is a selling point for most, but it helps to make the film feel authentic. It also happens fast. In most films, plane crashes seem to happen in slow motion, allowing us to revel in every special effect and filmmaking trick the director has in his arsenal.
Because of this early moment, the intesntiy of it, Carnahan has a lot to live up to and thankfully, there are other moments which will in all likliehood bring you to the edge of your seat.
The journey is punctuated by harrowing moments when the men have to overcome an obstacle; traversing a gorge on a single rope, fighting off wolves, dealing with the elements. Naturally, as soon as someone comes up with the idea of traversing the gorge, someone will have a fear of heights. This fear leads to problems. The real journey comes in how they overcome these obstacles. And because each of the men is different, they will react differently to these tests.
Carnahan doesn't shy away from depicting the harshness of the conditions or the environment. It's a bleak place and I can't imagine I would survive for 10 minutes. It looks uncomfortable and I can't imagine the actors were in the lap of luxury during the shoot.
"The Grey" is a surprisingly effective action film. Neeson's intensity adds a ot to the film, but Carnahan's attention to detail also help to paint a picture of survival you really feel you are a part of until the bitter end.
I'm not sure if I am helping generate any business for the film or not.