In this year’s installment of “Liam Neeson killing-spree mad libs,” writer-director Joe Carnahan pencils in Alaskan Grey Wolves as the plural noun on the receiving end of Neeson’s menacing brogue.
However, despite the trailer’s portrayal to the contrary, “The Grey” provides equal screen time to both psychological explorations of masculinity and computer-generated animal assaults, allowing the film to develop far beyond its “‘Taken’ with Wolves” concept.
Ottway (Neeson) works as a wolf slayer for a petroleum company in the Alaskan wilderness who is charged with the task of protecting the workers. The encroaching winter forces Ottway and a group of coworkers “unfit for mankind” to board a plane headed to Anchorage. In the most terrifying crash sequence since “Cast Away,” a storm rips apart the plane, plunging it deep into the frozen tundra.
With little equipment and food salvaged from the wreckage, Ottway and six survivors attempt to walk south towards civilization while packs of wolves run them down one-by-one. Ottway, who spouts off more animal fun-facts than an issue of “Zoobooks,” informs the audience the Alaskan wolf has a kill radius of 30 miles from its den. Whether Ottway and company are hiking to safety or into the the epicenter of the wolves’ kill zone, rest assured Neeson will kill with his bare hands.
When “The Grey” wasn’t caving to action film convention, complete with an unnecessary scene after the credits, it successfully conveyed the immense mental toll it takes to sustain one’s survival instinct while facing insurmountable odds. “The Grey” delves into each of the character’s motivations to stay alive via flashbacks, photos, and in a surprisingly philosophical turn, the nature of faith against an unforgiving environment.
Screenwriters Carnahan and Ian Mackenzie Jeffers, the latter of whom wrote the short story that served as the film’s source material, draw clever parallels between the pack of wolves fighting for alpha status and the pack of men struggling for control over the group’s direction. Unfortunately, the challenges to Ottway’s alpha male status come in the form of clichéd “I ain’t scared, man” chest-beating that feel laughably out of place in a film as realistic as “The Grey.” Beyond the repetitive structure of running from wolves, fighting wolves, and sitting around the campfire, it felt as though the writers were grasping for conflict when the landscape was already compelling enough.