The Grey (2012)
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.