Director: Joe Carnahan
Starring: Liam Neeson, Dermot Mulroney, Frank Grillo, Dallas Roberts, Joe Anderson, Nonso Anozie, James Badge Dale
From Deliverance to Alive and Into the Wild, there's something compelling about a survival movie. Man against nature, it's an unfair fight that usually ends in oblivion. Yet the director Joe Carnahan's The Grey doesn't even start with a smile on its face. The first scene sees Liam Neeson's John Ottway slug back some liquor at the Alaskan oil refinery where he works before walking out into the snow. "I've stopped doing the world any real good," he says, kneeling on the ground, putting his rifle into his mouth.
All that stops him from pulling the trigger is the distant cry of a wolf - an absurd moment never explained by Carnahan. But then The Grey is one of those films where psychological motivations give way to something far more primal. Survival, after all, is an instinct - and Carnahan's visceral film lives on them. Inspired by Ian Mackenzie Jeffers' short story Ghost Walkers, it's the director's best work since film Narc, and certainly more satisfying than his plodding take on The A-Team, which also starred Neeson.
Having averted his own suicide, Ottway probably wishes he hadn't after he boards a plane that crash-lands in the snowy wilderness during a vicious storm. With no chance of being rescued in such a remote part of the Alaskan tundra, so begins a brutal odyssey, as Ottway and the other walking wounded battle the elements and a ravenous pack of wolves, who seem rather affronted that these bedraggled foes have encroached upon their terrain.
Like a subzero Jaws, the plot of The Grey is swiftly distilled to simply kill or be killed. A sharpshooter employed by the oil rigs to protect the crew from animal attacks, Ottway is the ideal leader, but even he admits to being "terrified" as the wolves start picking off their prey. Such is the urgency of the situation, there's little time for any complex characterisation, beyond the inevitable male posturing - in particular from the brash Diaz (Grillo), who takes a dislike to following Ottway's self-appointed lead.
While the British actors Joe Anderson and Nonso Anozie help stoke up the campfire camaraderie, Carnahan is left to expertly weave tension and dread around brief moments of respite. Images sear themselves into your brain, from pairs of lupine eyes glowing in the dark as they surround the camp to a paw print filling with blood in the snow after a fresh attack. And with the wolves smartly rendered with a mix of CGI, animatronics and live animals, the title of Carnahan's 1998 debut movie, Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane, is brought to mind.
The film isn't without its problems - not least one insane Cliffhanger-style action scene that almost makes you lose the faith. You may also find it hard to believe that a man so close to suicide becomes so willing to survive at all costs. But what cannot be denied is a titanic turn from Neeson, who melds his recent action persona from Taken and Unknown with something altogether more soulful. Confronting God at one point, he roars, "Show me something real!" Carnahan and company manage this splendidly.