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.
The early part of the year is generally the season for movie goers to catch up on all the best picture nominees as well as a dumping ground for forgettable action flicks and rom-coms. There's a new tradition now with Liam Neeson led action movies being released almost on a yearly basis. There was "Taken" in 2009 and "Unknown" in 2011. 2012 follows suit with "The Grey" where Neeson is reunited with Joe Carnahan, the director of "The A-Team." The script is based on the short story, Ghost Walker, by Ian MacKenzie Jeffers, who also penned the awful revenge thriller "Death Sentence." Given the participants, I would have been satisfied with an hour and a half of Liam Neeson punching the fuck out of wolves. Indeed, the money shot of the trailer is Neeson duct taping a knife and broken miniature bottles to his hands as he prepares to dive into battle. Imagine my surprise to find "The Grey" is far more philosophical and contemplative than one would expect from Joe Carnahan.
Neeson stars as John Ottway, a sharpshooter stationed at an oil pumping station in the remote Arctic. He protects the workers from the wolves living in the surrounding wilds. It's not exactly a noble profession as the station employees are mostly reprobates and desperate men. As Ottway describes them, they are "unfit for mankind." Memories of his late-wife (Anne Openshaw) are the only things keeping him going.
A plane ride to Anchorage turns to disaster when the aircraft is caught in a blizzard and crashes into a snowy wasteland. Ottway assumes leadership of a handful of survivors that include the hotheaded ex-con Diaz (Frank Grillo), the devout family man Talget (an unrecognizable Dermot Mulroney), and the reserved Hendrick (Dallas Roberts). Their journey back to civilization is endangered, not only by the harsh elements, but by a pack of vicious wolves. These wolves are stalking the survivors not for food, but for vengeance as they are trespassing on their territory.
What differentiates "The Grey" from the winter season's cinematic detritus is the existential tone as it deals with faith in the face of a cruel world. There's an overriding sense of the impermanence of mankind, who will always be at the mercy of Mother Nature. These are certainly heady subjects for what Open Road Films has marketed as a standard action movie.
"The Grey" does offer a visceral experience as the deaths can occur suddenly and without warning. The wolves themselves are like unrelenting creatures from a horror film. One shot features the protagonists face to face with the pack as their eyes glow a stark white against the jet black night sky. Another sequence sees the survivors, forced to trudge through deep snow, helplessly watch as wolves tear apart their friend. Amidst all the brutally, some of the deaths are handled with emotional gravitas. The first one occurs when one man is found in the wreckage bleeding to death. Ottway doesn't bother to comfort him or mince words, he tells the man in a matter-of-fact manner that he's dying and nothing can be done. Despite the survivors being a collection of stock characters, it hits hard when one of them goes.
Liam Neeson has had a long career as a respectable actor, but it's only recently that he's become a top shelf action hero. With his booming voice and imposing 6'4 stature, he definitely has the credibility. As Ottway, Neeson gives a rich performance that's tinged with an unshakeable sadness. It's obvious this was something of a therapeutic role allowing Neeson to work through issues following the death of his wife Natasha Richardson in 2009. There's talk "The Grey" may be re-released for a run during awards season. Frank Grillo, previously seen as the trainer in "Warrior," also gives an excellent performance here and is the centerpiece for one of the film's most powerful scenes.
"The Grey" represents Joe Carnahan's best work, even better than his breakout film, "Narc." His direction is still stylish, but almost understated, refraining from his usually overly kinetic tricks. The plane crash is one of the most realistic and harrowing crashes committed to film. After that, we see Neeson lying peacefully next to his wife and underneath a white sheet only for her to be ripped away as he awakens in a snow drift.
The film's most controversial moment will certainly be the ending, an ambiguous finale that seems more suited for an indie drama though there is a brief epilogue after the credits. Not everyone will be pleased. For me, it ended on the right note and I cannot imagine any other conclusion. "The Grey" is more about the acceptance of death than triumphing over it.
The video is presented in 1080p with an aspect ratio of 2.40:1. The transfer is just about flawless with a nice layer of grain that adds texture and grittiness to the picture. The blinding white of the snow and the dark blacks stand out well as does the orange glow of a campfire.
The audio is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. The sound is consistently busy with the whistling of the blistering wind and the howling of the bloodthirsty wolves. The plane crash is the Blu-ray's centerpiece, an immersive experience that makes you feel like you're right on board.
Included is an audio commentary track with Joe Carnahan and Editors Roger Barton and Jason Hellmann. Loose tongues abound as the participants down some scotch while watching the film. Carnahan discusses the plane crash, shooting in the freezing cold, and has some sour words for a few people either named or unnamed.
Also, included are about 22 minutes worth of deleted scenes. Released as a combo pack, "The Grey" also comes with DVD and digital copy versions of the film.
"The Grey" is one of the first great films of 2012, an edge-of-your-seat tale of survival in the vein of Jack London. The ways in which it deals with manhood, spirituality, and the inevitability of death would make Hemingway proud.