Liam Neeson reunites with his A-Team director Joe Carnahan for The Grey, a man-versus-nature survival picture that casts the late-blooming action star as a modern “great white hunter” employed by an Alaskan oil company. Aspiring to a status akin to the visual equivalent of the muscular prose of Jack London and Ernest Hemingway, the film instead reeks of misguided machismo and blandly masculine sentiment more suited to an Under Armour commercial. There’s plenty of respect for rugged individuals but precious little regard for the power of the vast, indomitable wilderness, with the two sides portrayed as bitter rivals locked in eternal combat. For the record, I’m putting my money on nature.
Neeson’s job is to stand sentinel for oil drillers and ward off attacks from the grey wolves whose ornery insistence on protecting their habitat threatens our endangered pipelines. Animal experts have already been quick to point out the extreme rarity of wolf attacks on humans, but for the purposes of this plot they are aggressive, bloodthirsty behemoths. When a plane crash strands Neeson and a small cadre of oilmen in a remote section of the tundra, they must rely on the hunter’s finely-tuned survival skills to escape the wolves’ territory and trudge their way back to civilization. Though Neeson slips naturally into a leadership role, his charges unfortunately resemble a generic band of roughnecks destined to become tasty snacks for predators. There’s a weird exhibitionist bent in their dwindling numbers, as if Carnahan is unduly obsessed with the many ways people can perish in the Arctic. The lone memorable exception is a bespectacled Dermot Mulroney, who has plenty of rough edges but also shows enough vulnerability to dodge the tough-guy caricature that is the be-all, end-all for so many of his co-stars.
Perhaps most perplexing is the film’s tendency to muzzle Neeson, whose spectacular beat-downs are surely the quid pro quo for projects that force him to discard his actorly mien and rely solely on his hulking screen presence. But balls-out man-on-wolf combat is too visually ridiculous for a film this self-serious, and unfortunately leaves Neeson with little to do besides yell at everyone to keep walking. The Grey is a similarly grim, plodding affair (through some admittedly beautiful Far North scenery) that consistently undercuts whatever literary aspirations it does have with misplaced sarcasm. The recurring motif of a pugilistic poem penned by Neeson’s father completes the film’s blustery Victorian tone, hoping that we’ll confuse stubbornness for virility and braggadocio for heroism, despite all evidence to the contrary.