Grey: Joe Carnahan’s Action-Adventure, Starring Liam Neeson

Liam Neeson, who will be 60 this year, is a tall, handsome guy, with considerable dramatic skills to elevate every project he is in, be it a conventional thriller (“Taken”) or a genre actioner, such as his latest effort, “The Grey,” a well-executed survival thriller.

A likable actor, Neeson pulls you into the story, even if it’s a familiar (and trashy) one.   Due to his physical stature and moral-gravitas, he is credible even in adventure tales that are not exactly coherent or realistic.

Based on the short story “Ghost Walker” by Ian Mackenzie Jeffers, “The Grey” marks the second collaboration between Carnahan and Neeson, whose previous teaming was in “The A-Team.”

Director and co-writer Joe Carnahan, whose career began rather promisingly with the Sundance feature “Narc” and “Smokin’ Aces,” only to descent to the level of the disappointing comedy-actioner “The A-Team,” is the right helmer for this hard-core actioner.

In “The Grey,” set in the cold and remote Alaskan wilderness, Neeson plays John Ottway, the leader of an unruly group of oil-rig roughnecks struggling to survive, when their plane crashes there.

Following the genre’s conventions, the clock is ticking fast: Battling mortal injuries and cruel weather, the survivors have only days to escape the icy elements and a vicious pack of rogue wolves on the hunt (the film’s villains) before their time runs out.

Man versus Nature has been a recurrent issue in American films and not just in action-adventures. Westerns have also exploited this theme effectively.

While watching this action-adventure, I was reminded of the pleasure that this genre has given me as a boy, reading and then seeing the film version of “Moby Dick,” then watching and rewatching John Boorman’s “Deliverance,” of 1972, and, of course, Spielberg’s first masterpiece, “Jaws,” in 1975, all highlights of the genre.

For those who care about plot details: The saga begins at a refinery, where crude oil is broken into elements for commercial use. Workers endure grueling five-week shifts 24/7, before getting two weeks off for vacation.

One group of men heading back home encounter a brutal storm, causing the plane to crash in the Alaskan tundra. All on board are killed except for eight survivors who head south, pursued by a pack of ferocious mysterious (and mystical) wolves.

The protagonists are not natural heroes, but ordinary human beings, whose strength—and mettle—are put to test in most dangerous and extreme circumstances.

 The one new thematic element of “The Grey” is not just having the men stranded in the wilderness, but having them battle a pack of angry, hungry, bloodthirsty wolves in dogged pursuit of human prey.

As the wild wolves protecting their den pick off their helpless victims one at a time, the chances of survival become remote.  While there’s some suspense in who of the survivors will die first (or second), there’s not much mystery as to who would be the last man standing.

A sharpshooter, Ottway has been hired by the refinery to keep bears, canines and other wild beasts from attacking oil workers during their shifts. While appreciating his own vulnerability, Neeson recognizes the duality of his sharpshooter persona, serving as antagonist and protagonist. (You have to see the picture to understand this duality).

 A mythic character himself, Ottway has a specific relationship to the wolves. While working on the refinery’s fence line to make sure the animals don’t attack the men, he begins to realize the wolves may be seeking revenge.  As vibrant, strong and tough as he is, Neeson brings a deeper, more profound sense of issues of life and death is about.

 With the exception of Neeson, the cast is largely composed of unknowns, such as Frank Grillo, Dallas Roberts, Joe Anderson, Nonso Anozie, Ben Bray, and James Badge Dale, all creditable actors as far as enduring physical rigors is concerned.  Mulroney, one of the crew’s familiar thesps, sports a beard and wears glasses so he’s barely recognizable from his usual screen image.

The basic thematic concepts of “predators” and “prey” protecting their territories strike a familiar chord.  What elevates the picture above a routine programmer is its ambition to go beyond the thriller-horror-actioner and offer a character-driven chronicle, in which primal instincts are brought to the fore and personalities clash.

The tale depicts a group of guys who don’t really know who they are when faced with dire circumstances, forcing them to transform, overcome differences—and bond. Each of these characters is a different facet of Ottway’s own personality–the tough guy, the coward, the sensitive, the husband, even the sociopath.

What is less effective in the film is its pretension to deal with some more profound existential question, specifically the contrast between commercial-industry and the primal-natural worlds.

Technical values are good, as befits any feature overseen by the production company of Ridley and Tony Scott.  Shooting on location near the sub-artic zone is a major plus.

In a recent interview, Neeson said: “When I read the script, I was 57, and the little boy inside me thought it would be great to take on such a demanding role. I wanted audiences to say ‘Wow, how did you guys do that?’  At the same time, I was thinking, ‘Jeez, can I physically do this?'”

Judging by his performance, the answer is in the affirmative.