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The Grey (2012)

August 8, 2012

8/10 Black Deaths

Well, that came out of nowhere.

The Grey is about a man with a very particular set of skills that he’s acquired over a very long career spent hunting wolves on an Alaskan oil refinery. His wife has left him, he’s at the end of his rope, and he’s heading home with the team of oil riggers he’s been hired to protect. But then they hit a blizzard, their plane crashes in an Alaskan tundra, and the survivors find themselves smack dab in the middle of wolf territory. With supplies and options at an all-time low, the hunter takes command, leads what’s left of his team into the wilderness, and searches for civilization before the hounds get them first.

As far as misleading ad campaigns go, this one was a doozie. Let’s face it, the only reason any of us cashed in on this movie was under the promise of seeing Liam Neeson bare-knuckling wolves for two hours. When that’s the last image you leave viewers with in a trailer – Liam Neeson charging head-first at a goddamn wolf – you’ll put some asses in seats. One of those moments that either made you wonder why Liam Neeson was sabotaging his own career, or confirmed your belief that Liam Neeson is a living god. But as much as I like Liam Neeson, I thought it looked stupid as hell, even if there is an awfully strange appeal to fashioning nips of Jack into brass knuckles. I’m still not sure what side of the fence most folks ended up on after taking this all into account, but one thing was for certain: this sucker was taking itself seriously.

It was some ad campaign alright, but for all the time I rant about how trailers are the antichrist, how they give too much away, and how they just provide false impressions for the movies they’re promoting, every once in a while you get one that actually does the movie a service. So with my hesitations on high and my expectations running on empty, I prepared for a movie I didn’t want to see. And whaddaya know, I got something else.

Interestingly enough, The Grey works in a lot of the same ways that writer/director Joe Carnahan’s last effort, The A-Team, worked. Also not sure about what side of the fence people are on with that one, but as weird as it is for me to say this, I kinda love The A-Team. Much like The Grey, its reason for existing was suspect at best, the action scenes looked to be staged by a six-year-old on a Pixy Stix bender, and the trailers weren’t doing much to sell it as anything but that. But then I watched it, and it had me grinning like a simpleton from start to finish. It wasn’t Shakespeare, but it was a blast.

I liked spending time with B.A., Murdoch, Hannibal, and Face because they were having as much fun flying a tank through the air as I was watching them from my couch. They knew it wasn’t Shakespeare, they acted like people instead of characters, and it made all the difference. If they had acted differently, it would crashed and burned like so many of its peers, and the same is true for John Ottway and the crash survivors. Because if there’s one thing Joe Carnahan knows, it’s how much salt to take things with.

The reality of the situation is that this could have been some frustrating shit to sit through. I could easily see some Hollywood fat cat greenlighting a movie where every scene has some asshole freaking out like Bill Paxton right before he gets his head chewed off, all while Liam Neeson whales on a wolf with some Rambo-like trap he MacGyvered out of twigs and berries. Thank you, Joe Carnahan. Thank you for not making me sit through that. Not to say that there isn’t action and suspense to spare, but while the steps these men take to secure their physical survival is driving force of the plot, that’s not what this story is about. Ultimately, The Grey is a meditation on death, its inevitability, and how we answer the door when it finally comes knocking. Again, certainly not the movie I was expecting.

Hopefully I’m not bursting anyone’s bubble, but one of these days, we’re all gonna check out. Death is some scary shit, and its fascinating to watch the different ways in which these characters come together and come to terms with that fact when it’s staring them in the face. Even more fascinating in how it makes us reflect on our own lives and deaths. And there are a lot of characters here, a lot of whom die. But what matters is that they don’t feel expendable. Their experiences, their actions, the fates that befall them all serve a purpose, whether it be for their own sense of closure or for those around them. Under someone else’s direction, they could have been dog meat, but these guys are as human as they come, and it makes all the difference.

In fact, there’s only one stock character in the bunch: that dude with a chip on his shoulder who, for reasons unknown, insists on making life difficult for everyone else around him and is naturally the first one to ask, “Who made you the boss?,” when Ottway starts giving orders. For a while there, this curmudgeonly bastard was the Achilles’ heel of this movie and was glaringly out of place amongst a cast of characters who clearly understood the value of common sense. But then in one fell swoop, the script becomes self-aware and changes all that for the better. Not only do his shortcomings become his strengths, but he becomes the most interesting character next to Ottway himself.

And that’s what’s great about this script: the way it keeps evolving, keeps adding unforeseen layers, and keeps getting better right up until the very end. This is deep stuff here, and it’s incredibly effective to boot. It handles its circumstances with the seriousness they deserve, it provides some universal, borderline profound insights along the way, and completely rises above the preconceptions that came along with it. It does get a bit heavy-handed at times, mostly due to how many times Neeson gives his “Live or die on this day” speech like he’s George-effing-Patton, but despite how many frat boys probably have that speech up on their Facebook profiles right now, it’s a pretty minor gripe in light of everything else this script achieves.

Not to mention what a fantastic, fleshed-out character Ottway is and what an awesome call it was to have Neeson play him. Still blows my mind how Liam Neeson has turned into such an undeniable badass over the past few years, but things are obviously working out for the guy. They’re making Taken 2 for chrissakes. Wonder what that one’s gonna be about.

Anyway, I’m still pretty surprised by how much I liked this movie, not to mention how impressed I am by Joe Carnahan these days. Not to piggyback off the same point, but the thing that’s so special about The Grey is how unexpected it all is. It had all the trappings of being a vapid, idiotic, testosterone-charged excuse to watch The Actor Formally Known as Oskar Schindler go to town on some mutts, and I thought that’s what I signed myself up for. It should not have been good, but it was. It looks great, it plays out brilliantly, and it continually digs deeper instead of staying in the shallow end.

I’m sure there are folks out there who were hoping for some hardcore man-on-wolf combat here, but alas, this is much, much more than that. Then again, give it another year. Someone in Hollywood is bound to make that movie.

17 Comments leave one →
  1. August 8, 2012 5:44 pm

    Great review! I feel like I need to see it again now and give it a second shot. I was actually put off by the fact that the movie was so different from what I expected; I was mentally prepared for some mindless Liam Neeson action, so I came out pissed off about the plodding and over-serious script. But I think if I took another look without that bias I could probably appreciate it for what it is.

    • August 9, 2012 11:41 am

      Thanks! I can totally see how you (and a lot of folks for that matter) would be disappointed by how unexpected it was given the trailers and such. Definitely helped that I wasn’t excited to see the movie that was being advertised, but like you said, definitely worth another look now that you know what you’re getting into.

      Thanks for stopping by and don’t be a stranger!

  2. August 11, 2012 2:25 pm

    One of my favorite movies ever – and that’s saying something. Great review.

  3. Branden permalink
    August 16, 2012 11:57 pm

    Everybody is loving this freaking movie. I should see it. I’ll give my take on it soon.

  4. August 17, 2012 11:57 pm

    I haven’t seen anything by Joe Carnahan since Narc, the opening scene of which is one of the most riveting pieces of cinema I’ve seen.
    The Grey sounds interesting. It’s been and gone here but I’ll look for it at the video hire.

    • August 20, 2012 6:27 pm

      I haven’t seen Narc in ages, man. Forgot that Carnahan even did that. Mostly remember the ending, will have to give it another watch to experience the beginning again.

      And The Grey is very much worth checking out. Wasn’t expecting I’d writing that sentence before I pressed play, but there ya’ go. Let me know what you think once you get around to it.

  5. August 21, 2012 9:53 pm

    You know, when I initially saw this film, I was not quite sure how I felt about it as a whole. A movie’s ending always makes a big impact on my overall impression of the film, and in this case, I must admit I found it very unsettling. Whenever I reminisced The Grey, it always followed with a shudder and a churning feeling in the pit of my stomach. I decided that I did not like it, and attempted to dismiss it from my memory.

    Yet, I could not do such a thing! Whether I liked it or not, my mind kept referring back to the film, musing over its themes and the scenes that had garnered the most reaction out of my movie-viewing self. So I finally had to acknowledge something, and that was this-while the movie may not have given me the most comforting ending, it definitely left a lasting impact. Now, as I reflect on both it and your review here, I feel nothing but respect and admiration for this movie.

    Yes, it may not be a very optimistic, feel-good flick, but that is because it is not meant to be. The Grey is meant to be a thought-provoking survival movie, and it hits all the right notes in being so. I may not be eager to watch it again, but it is definitely a movie that I will not be soon forgetting. You are right-it definitely succeeds in being far beyond what you expect!

    I am so sorry that was a long comment! xO

    • August 22, 2012 9:55 am

      Hahaha. Love the occasional long comment!

      I feel like a lot of people had that initial lackluster reaction to this movie, but glad to hear you came around! Doesn’t sound like you had much choice in the matter.

      Definitely wasn’t what I expected, and was really surprised (in a good way) by that ending. Might be worth giving it another go down the line, but even if that never happens, it’s great to hear that it made such an impact. Thanks for sharing and don’t be a stranger!

  6. September 3, 2012 1:03 am

    I thought that this was a really good movie, maybe made under false pretenses, but a really good result. The movie was way more about the characters than the action, which is a refreshing change of pace in the survival action genre. I rented the Blu-Ray through my Blockbuster @Home account after a coworker at Dish recommended it to me, and I was pleasantly surprised by the depth of the film. Liam Neeson was perfectly cast in the lead role because they needed a great actor to get the action crowd interested in the characters. I love renting Blu-Ray movies because they look so great on my home theater without having to spend $30 on a movie I don’t know about, but this one was so good I think I will buy it.

    • September 4, 2012 1:56 pm

      Do you work for Blockbuster by any chance? Starting to sound like there’s a hiring boom over there.

      Either way, totally agree with you about the movie. False pretenses are more then welcome when they end up producing something like this. Wish more action movies were as character-driven as this was.

  7. September 15, 2012 8:34 am

    I just watched The Grey and Aiden, I want to say thanks for pointing me towards it.
    The only promo I saw for it here was the poster they put on the back of the buses, so apart from your review I had no idea what to expect. A powerful movie – and possibly the first time I have ever let the credits roll to the end on a DVD. I’m glad I did, for that final moment…

    • September 17, 2012 5:40 pm

      You got it, man! They did a shit job of marketing this movie as something totally different than what it actually is. Then again, that totally added to why I liked it so much.

      And I didn’t even know there was a post-credits sequence! Just checked it out and you are so very right. What a perfect note to close out on.

      • September 17, 2012 5:45 pm

        PS: Much to my surprise I found a couple of people at work have seen The Grey and thought it was 10/10. I wasn’t surprised that the boss had liked it, but I was surprised that one of the office ladies gave it the thumbs up. I thought she be more a chick-flick type.

      • September 17, 2012 5:58 pm

        Your co-workers have good taste, man. Keep spreading’ the word!

  8. September 15, 2012 8:35 am

    Reblogged this on The mind is an unexplored country. and commented:
    If you missed The Grey in the cinemas, get it out on DVD. This weekend. Now.

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