"THE GREY" — ★★1/2 — Liam Neeson, Frank Grillo, Dallas Roberts, Dermot Mulroney; R (violence/disturbing content including bloody images, and for pervasive language); in general release
"The Grey" is an old-fashioned survival tale harboring pretensions that it is something more. Not a lot more — just a hint of the psycho-cerebral here, a smidgen of the primal and primitive there.
Liam Neeson stars in director Joe ("Smoking Aces") Carnahan's latest splash of testosterone, about a wintry plane crash in the Alaskan arctic in which the survivors are stalked by wolves. Their only protection is each other and the hunter (Neeson) whose job it was to understand wolves and shoot them when they got too close to oil workers.
The crash itself is scary, surreal and graphic, among the best ever filmed. Those who walk away from it find themselves in a snowy hell.
Then we start to meet the sketched-in "types" that the script has packed onto that plane and the movie loses its lovely promise, if not its premise. There's the sensitive guy with brains (Dallas Roberts), the dad missing his kid (Dermot Mulroney), the hothead Latino ex-con (Frank Grillo), the gentle man-mountain (Nonso Anozie) and a few others.
They're in the middle of nowhere, with no real survival gear and no prayer of being found in this blizzard. Not before they freeze to death. Not before the wolves get them.
Neeson — as Ottway, the hunter who takes over this survivor "pack" — lays out the wolf problem: pack dynamics, territory, feeding range. The men, a rough crew of strangers, must scramble through whiteout conditions, keeping warm, keeping the wolves at bay, on a trek to safety.
The idea from this script by Carnahan and Ian Mackenzie Jeffers is that the humans revert to a sort of pack mentality, with Ottway as the alpha dog, challenged by others as the weak and the careless are picked off. The characters pick up random bits of back story and the film begs us to wonder about the woman we see in Ottway's vivid, hallucinogenic flashbacks.
The spare use of music emphasizes the howling tundra winds, and the production design gets across the bleak, hostile terrain this mismatched crew must master. The dialogue is hard-bitten, but not particularly punchy or pithy.
Death scenes are handled with a manly grace, with the fatalistic Ottway (Neeson is perfect for this) urging the dying to let it "slide over you."
The makings of a solid adventure tale were here. But what came out in "The Grey" is entirely too much like the title — colorless, and grey, and a too digital for its own good.
'The Grey" is rated R for violence/disturbing content including bloody images, and for pervasive language; running time: 112 minutes.