One hates to describe a fine film in such simplistic terms, but here goes: take the location (and, to a degree, the characters) of John Carpenter's The Thing, toss them into act one of Frank Marshall's Alive, and then have them struggle through a gritty survivor "horror" film involving a pack of angry and highly territorial wolves, and that's sort of what Joe Carnahan's The Grey feels like.
Certainly a better film than that patchwork description implies, The Grey offers more than just rough and grizzled "tough guy" adventures; the screenplay by Carnahan and Death Sentence screenwriter Ian Jeffers is considerably smarter than a basic genre film needs, the supporting cast is consistently strong, and the reluctant hero is played with stark and fascinating darkness by the excellent Liam Neeson.
So while The Grey is a thriller about an Alaskan oil drilling team that suffers a horrendous plane crash only to land knee-deep in hungry wolf territory, there's a respectable amount of legitimate character and sincere emotion being employed here. (A subplot about the lead character's wife is both poignant and a welcome respite from the admirably bleak trappings of the majority of the movie.) Neeson, as always, brings a commanding sense of authority, even if this time out his character is a provocatively unhappy one. This is a guy who has seen some truly tough time, and it's only through (good/bad) luck that he finds himself thrust into the roles of survivor and savior. We all know how well Liam Neeson can do serious drama and hard-nosed action, but here he combines the two with an effortless ease. The man is just plain old fun to watch, even when his characters are not.
A departure of sorts for director Joe Carnahan -- this is miles away from The A Team, Smokin' Aces, or even Narc -- The Grey looks, sounds, and practically feels like it was a ridiculously difficult film to make, but the results are more than evident on the screen. The cinematography by relative newcomer Masanobu Takayangi, who shot the recent MMA movie Warrior, takes full advantage of the beautifully frigid Vancouver mountains, The score by Marc Streitenfeld, another relative newbie -- though he's scoring Prometheus for Ridley Scott -- is action-style intense one moment, and sadly tragic the next. And the aforementioned "wife" subplot, which is integral to both the film and the lead character, is employed quite cleverly by Carnahan's team of three (!) editors.
Taken as a simple, if frequently tragic, adventure story about men lost in the woods, The Grey is some serious old-school fun, something we might have once received from a director like Walter Hill or Don Siegel. But there's clearly something working beneath the surface of The Grey, and that's what makes it a whole lot cooler than just another assembly-line mountaintop misadventure.
Bottom line: I think it's important to note that The Grey is both more intelligent and emotionally contemplative than it needs to be ... but really it's also just a bad-ass Jack London-y story that has plane crashes, horrible carnage, and Liam Neeson swinging axes at gigantic wolves.
The Grey opens wide across the U.S. on Jan. 27.