By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
Throwing its characters to the wolves — literally — to see how they fare is a central component of The Grey‘s anatomy.
Not so well, it turns out. For us, either. This wilderness adventure never quite tracks us down.
Liam Neeson stars as loner John Ottway, a despondent member of an oil drilling team who is contemplating suicide, depressed by his estrangement and separation from his wife, as the film opens.
When the plane carrying Ottway and the rest of the team back to Anchorage crashes in the remote Alaskan wilds, the few survivors — played by Dermot Mulroney, Dallas Roberts, Frank Grillo, and Joe Anderson among others — struggle to survive not only the bitter cold and the lack of food and supplies but the pack of ferocious, territorial wolves who see the humans as intruders as well as food, and begin hunting them.
With his knowledge of wolf behavior gained from his experience working as a sharpshooter responsible for scaring off or killing any beasts, including wolves, that threaten the workers at oil refineries, the forceful and resourceful Ottway becomes the unofficial, self-appointed leader — the human alpha wolf — of the group, which has now become prey to the predatory pack.
The ever-dwindling group must not only remain vigilant with the wolves on their trail, but they must drain their energies fighting the seemingly overwhelming feeling — fueled by their knowledge that it’s unlikely that anyone is actually looking for them and it’s even more unlikely that they could find them if they were — of helplessness and hopelessness.
Director c (Smokin’ Aces; Narc; Pride and Glory; Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane) co-wrote the occasionally pretentious man-versus-nature screenplay with Ian Mackenzie Jeffers, based on Jeffers’ short story, “Ghost Walker.”
But Carnahan’s biggest problem is that the rogue wolves protecting their den — a mix of real wolves, animatronics, and CGI — never appear real enough to be threatening or generate legitimate fear.
The level of menace is much higher when all we can see are the wolves’ eyes glowing in the snowy dark. The director really shouldn’t have provided them so much screen time.
The commanding presence of Neeson, who co-starred in Carnahan’s The A-Team, helps anchor the film appropriately and even mitigates against any delusions of grandeur in the screenplay’s short-of-the-mark philosophizing.
But then those phony wolves show up again.
Of course, part of the perverse pleasure provided by The Grey comes from sitting in a warm, dry movie theatre and watching these poor souls stranded in the Alaskan tundra avoid freezing to death or being mauled to smithereens and turned into dinner.
But in the end, it’s not enough, even for us comfy, coddled viewers.
So we’ll hunt 2 stars out of 4 for The Grey, a battling-the-elements drama that’s fit enough to survive but not enough to thrive.