It’s handy when films can be reduced to an adversarial shorthand. Lee Tamahori’s 1997 action thriller The Edge can adequately summed up as ‘Anthony Hopkins vs. bear’. Equally, Saving Private Ryan can be given the shorthand, ‘Tom Hanks vs. tank’. The same can be said for Joe Carnahan’s The Grey, which is, quite clearly, ‘Liam Neeson vs. wolves’.
I re-watched The Edge that other day, actually, and was reminded just how good that film was. It probably helped that it had a screenplay by David Mamet, something The Grey unfortunately can’t boast. That’s not to say that The Grey isn’t a good film. It is a thoroughly decent feature and one that, when it hits the mark, really excels.
Ottway (Neeson) is employed by an Alaskan oil drilling company to shoot any wolves that get too close to their operation, and if the opening moments are anything to go by, these wolves are pretty darn aggressive. When he and a group of workers become stuck in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness with a pack of wolves on their tail, it’s up to Neeson to step in as alpha and lead them all to safety.
You don’t have to squint too hard to see that the film is trying to draw parallels between the group of humans and the pack of wolves hunting them. Whilst this might seem gauche, its indicative of a film that sets its sights higher than the average action/horror movie. The opening montage almost feels like it’s from an indie arthouse flick, as we see just how depressed Ottway is right from the get go. This is followed by an extraordinary set piece that is really stunning (not to mention deafening). From the first wolf attack, however, we realise we in horror movie territory.
The attacks are vicious, and though we often don’t see very much, there’s certainly a lot of blood spraying around. The wolves themselves are created using a brilliant blend of CGI, real footage and animatronics. There are moments that seem fake, but overall the blending of the three techniques works wonders. It’s also wonderful to see a film that doesn’t rely solely on CGI, so props ought to go to both the visual and practical effects units.
There’s quite a large cast (to begin with), and the different characters are reasonably well-established, even if it takes you a while to learn everyone’s names. Relatively unknown Dallas Roberts is great as one of the more good-natured fellow travellers, whilst Dermot Mulroney is almost completely unrecognisable under beard and glasses (it was the trademark sneer that gave him away).
At the end of the day, both the screenplay and the director approach the material with the utmost seriousness, which is both a boon and a curse. The Grey is, on any reasonable analysis, a very silly film. Then again, I appreciated the sincerity of the narrative, even when it flirted with becoming overly sentimental or grandiose.Rating: