The Grey is better than it has any right to be

I really still want to be talking about Sherlock, but I guess I can manage to tear myself away for a few minutes and talk about The Grey instead.

When I started seeing trailers for The Grey last year, I thought what everyone thought: This movie might as well be called Liam Neeson Punches Wolves. It looked like his “Liam Neeson Vendetta Project” films (thank you for that, Mindy Kaling), except with wolves. There’s even a scene where he tapes broken glass to his fists and face-punches a wolf! It did not look like a good movie. And it was coming out in January, which just reinforced that impression. But then I saw The Grey and I found myself thinking that the January release was a horrible idea and it should be coming out in September or October (there is talk of an October re-release in hopes of getting Oscar consideration in 2013). Because The Grey is way, way better than any January  movie has a right to be.

Neeson stars as Ottway, a professional hunter who snipes at wolves to keep them away from an Arctic-circle oil operation. On a flight home, the plane crashes and only Ottway and a handful of other men survive. The other men are interchangeable and might as well not have names, as none of them stuck. Though Dermot Mulroney gives a solid performance and is nearly unrecognizable, I still can’t remember his character’s name. Characterization isn’t the main focus of The Grey, though, it’s a classic man vs. nature struggle in the vein of Jack London and the men function as characters just enough to keep moving but no more. The lack of strong characters, though, was kind of a drawback since I didn’t particularly care whenever someone died since they all seemed doomed from the start, and I was half-way rooting for the wolves anyway. And on that note…

REAL WOLVES WOULD NEVER EVER ACT LIKE THIS.

The movie isn’t demonizing, per se, since they go out of their way to establish that “we’re in their territory, playing by their rules”, but it still stands that actual wolves, even a large pack as portrayed in The Grey, would never approach humans in such a way. As long as they can flee, they’ll flee. They’re terribly shy of people. It takes wildlife biologists months to familiarize with a pack and even then they have a better chance of doing so if the wolves were handled by people as pups, as opposed to being born in the wild. I’ve seen some people be like, “Oh whatever, it’s just a movie,” about this but the fact remains that wolves continue to be hunted due to fear and mistrust and movies like this do not help that, no matter how good their intentions are. Anyway, as long as you keep in mind that The Grey would never happen, it’s an entertaining movie.

Of course I was completely stressed out the whole time I was watching it, but given that it’s a survival-horror movie, being strung out and tense works with the tone. Director Joe Carnahan managed to make sense of some spectacularly silly action sequences in The A-Team, so it’s not surprising that he creates taut, suspenseful action sequences in a movie that is inherently much less ridiculous than The A-Team. He’s got a knack for framing and pacing that’s suited to action, but he knows when to let go and have the human moments come forward and have their moment, too. Of course, the human moments in The Grey are almost painfully so. Neeson has a “why God why” moment that feels less like acting and more like working out deeply personal issues in front of a camera. But this is easily his best performance since he started taking as much work as possible in the wake of Natasha Richardson’s death. He brings a very raw edge to Ottway that’s been missing from his other action-driven roles.

Huge negative for The Grey, though, are the CGI wolves. It’s sad, too, because the footage of actual wolves is great, and the plane crash sequence is appropriately terrifying and handled in a way that looks believable (too believable, am afraid to fly again). But the CGI wolves made me want to tape broken glass to my fists and punch myself in the face. My list of Stuff That Looks Shitty In CGI previously only included water and fire (although, to be fair, they’ve made huge strides on the fire front in the last year or so). But I’m going to have to add “wolves” because what I once thought was a Twilight problem seems to be a “wolf” problem. Like the Twilight wolves, the CGI wolves in The Grey have that same airy-fairy, mannerist feel, especially when they move. It looks like they’re sliding and floating over surfaces, instead of stepping properly on them.

Overall, The Grey is a solid movie that thinks a bit deeper than the usual action movie does and it features a strong performance from Neeson. For those of us who love wolves, it’s kind of annoying, but I was still able to enjoy it even if I did have to grit my teeth in a few places. And it’s definitely way, way better than either its trailer or January release date suggests.

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2 thoughts on “The Grey is better than it has any right to be

  1. Great review. Neeson is out-standing here and gives probably one of his best performances that we have seen from him in a very long time. The rest of the film also works because there’s not only this certain paranoia going on but even when the “action” comes, it’s tense, brutal, and surprising. Best film of the year so far even though that’s definitely not saying much.

  2. Love the review. Agree that the trailer doesn’t do the film justice. When I first saw it I thought, 1.5hrs of Liam Neeson kicking and punching wolves? No thanks. But I’m a huge Neeson fan so I had to give it a go. Surprisingly, the night I went, the theatre was almost packed, so I had sit close to the front, which did not help during the plane crash scene as it made me feel like I was in the plane. TERRIFYING. The other terrifying moment was when Dermot Mulroney’s character (Talgot?) was getting ready to go across the line, I swear the whole time I thought a wolf was going to jump out and rip his face off and I could hardly breathe 😦

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