So what we’ve got here is basically ‘Alive’, the 95 flick in which a rugby team crashes a plane in the Andies and has to survive the elements in the remnants of the plane. Or, last year’s teen horror nasty ‘Frozen’, in which complacent snowboarders are trapped on a ski-lift after dark and get picked off by wolves, but notched up by a factor of about ten.
Liam Neeson is an industry standard grumpy hardass character with an antisocial personality, a mental photo gallery of regrets and a pining for his broken relationship, intro’d to us through fairly unoriginal intercutting flashbacks of an idyllic, in-bed cuddling session. So far so good. He’s some kind of wolf-hunter up in Alaska somewhere, stomping around in big work clothes and rifle. The wolf-hunting proves to be an extraordinarily fortunate vocation for what happens next.
Well of course the plane carrying him back to civilization crashes, but not before we are shown the loudmouth stupidity of his planemates, who boast and jostle for position, disturbing Liam’s beauty sleep and generally being a nuisance and displaying insufficient respect for the harsh wilderness they have just left and its noble savage beasts. (Can you guess what happens to these guys?)
At this point I was feeling pretty much on autopilot. This was obviously going to be another man vs. wild flick where weak, lily-livered city dwellers are picked off one by one and only the hardiest and most respectful to the natural elements of the strandees will survive against the bears (‘The Edge’)/sharks (‘Open Water’)/ Southerners (‘Deliverance’)/ *insert wild animal of choice here*. Sigh.
A moving and realistic death scene soon after the crash re-aligns our expectations somewhat to at least a certain grisly adherance to real world logic. The film also has great dark photography. A less-is-more approach works to good effect to enhance our fear both during the crash and in later critical wolf encounters by the fact that we can’t exactly see what is going on. Soon enough Liam cracks out his obligatory, foreboding wolf story round the campfire, becoming a wolf version of Robert Shaw’s embittered shark hunter in ‘Jaws’.
So far points for style and photography, a big fat zero for originality.
Once the dwindling party get to the treeline however, the movie improves, getting into the ‘meat’ of the story, as it were. The best thing about ‘The Grey’ by far, is the cool wolf dynamics, the politics of the pack that is hunting Liam and the lads. Basically the sound design of the large wolf group talking to each other about the strange intruders in the darkness of the forest, in particular the presence of the ‘Alpha’, the Jaws-like superwolf big boss, with its immense, bassy voice which periodically tells the other wolves to shut up and think intelligently about the problem of the humans. Aside from being a stroke of budgetry genius (all you need is a campfire, a few trees and some authentic-sounding wolf noises!), this idea really saves the film. Because of course the Alpha wolf is Liam’s opposite number, his counterpart in wolf society. His problems with subordinates mirror Liam’s own and we are meant to draw the inference that Liam actually has more in common with the Alpha wolf than he does with his weaker human followers. Cue a grudging, Moby Dick-esque mutual respect.
So, after a half-hearted Bear Grylls/‘First Blood’-like fightback against their hairy tormentors, the stage is set for a one-on-one showdown between man and wolf.
But not before there’s enough time for another fireside D & M. This one about faith and theology. Whereas deep-thinking, conscientious Dermot Mulroney believes in destiny, the others, including reluctantly Liam, think there is no such thing, only the world around us and our animal natures, the point of life being nothing but the fight itself. The wolves presumably also agree. But this great scene elevates the movie still further, with both the underrated Mulroney and overrated Neeson on career best form, rounding out their archetypically craggy, hard-bitten characters with some memorable acting.
Although the turn of events is unoriginal at best, a completely predictable, by-numbers pot-boiler at worst, like so many such films at the moment it seems, what Hollywood CAN do is at least breathe life and believability into and squeeze some deeper meaning out of those old tropes using skilful directing, cinematography, editing and sound design. And, classy and heavyweight acting. ‘The Grey’ is basically a re-make of Jaws, with Neeson as Shaw and Mulroney as Richard Dreyfuss, and substituting darkness for the ocean as the method of keeping the monster hidden and therefore more terrifying in our minds.
The bits that aren’t ‘Jaws’ are an amalgam of other previous outdoorsy thrillers. A heart-in-your-mouth chasm-cross sequence is a brilliantly-staged highlight, but still not something we haven’t seen before. On the subject of the particular beasts in question, ‘Frozen’ definitely got there first with the scoop that ‘wolves are not in fact big, cuddly dogs and friends of Kevin Costner but actually evil, flesh-tearing, murderous bastards’. It may be a way classier and better made version than that top-shelf, bargain-basement exploitation horror but it still feels like someone watched it and said ‘wouldn’t this be great with Liam Neeson?’
It’s annoying to see yet another movie fall back on spectacular scenery, re-hashed formula, conveniently scheduled danger points and off-the-shelf, maudlin emotion. But if you’re going to watch one, this is probably the one to watch. Because it’s about as good a movie as you could possibly make considering the above. The reason is a career-defining performance by Neeson. And what seems like an unusually fitting match of his screen persona with the subject matter and overall agenda of the movie. Which is the worldy, atheistic one that there is no afterlife, that life is transient and the only real measure of worth is in being a man of honour and courage and dying hard. The rare use of his own native Irish brogue and inclusion of Irish poetry, sentiment and story-telling give you the impression that this character is also closer to his heart than most. Such a definitive performance gives the movie an iconic presence that is larger than and undeserved by the actual story.
Neeson’s dour, ‘Neeson-esque’ performance makes this worth watching. The rest is well-made but predictable and derivative.