The Grey might be classified as an action movie, but there was a shell of an excellent horror film here. Sure, star Liam Neeson is playing a slightly altered version of the absurdly composed, violent specialist that he made iconic in 2008's Taken, but the rest of it has all the ingredients for terror.
Neeson is Ottway, a sharpshooter hired by an Alaskan oil company to protect its workers from the packs of wild wolves that rove the territory which they are attempting to drill. A depressed loner in a camp full of rowdy men, he hops on a plane headed south. Most of the men with him are cheerily heading home to see their families. Ottway? Well, we're not really sure where he's headed. A series of flashbacks tell us he's lost everything in his personal life, most notably his wife, and that he's seriously contemplated suicide, going so far as to stick the barrel of his high-powered rifle in his mouth on one of his last nights in camp.
It doesn't really matter where he's headed because he and his fellow passengers never make it to their destination, crash landing in the Alaskan wilderness, smack dab in the midst of a wolf pack's hunting ground. And it is here that the action mostly ends and the fright begins. I've never been aboard a plane that has crashed, but it felt plenty (and uncomfortably) realistic as the aircraft went down. The aftermath is all blood and guts, first as Ottway and his fellow survivors pick through the wreckage of the crash and then as they are picked off one by one by the pursuing wolves.
With its disturbing imagery (mainly of the plane crash) and its methodical killers (the wolves), The Grey might have been a terrific horror film. It wasn't mostly because of three distracting factors.
First, I just can't take Neeson seriously in this type of role anymore. The same was true of last year's Unknown. Taken was a fine movie, but reprising an approximation of his role in that film on the edge of the Arctic feels like self-parody. Jason Statham might play the same character in every movie, but we don't really know if he's capable of anything else. That's demonstrably not so with the accomplished Neeson. Moreover, Neeson's gruff, cold-blooded killer schtick felt out of place in, again, what should have been a straightforward horror flick. The leading man here was both cliche and incongruous. That's never a good start.
Second, I've seen too much Man vs. Wild. That's to say that I've seen what being stuck in the Alaskan wilderness looks like in real life (or close to real life), courtesy of Bear Grylls, and so it was difficult for me to suspend my disbelief about a lot of the things this group of survivors had to deal with -- from frigid temperatures to dangerous predators to crossing deadly gorges with makeshift equipment. When Ottway and Hendrick (Dallas Roberts) end up tumbling down a freezing river and don't quickly succumb to frostbite, well, I could only laugh dismissively.
Third, the wolves themselves looked like they were beamed in from a 1980s special effects department. For The Grey to fully work, you need to believe that Neeson and company aren't wrestling with a recently taxidermied specimen from the local Natural History museum. Maybe that's an unfair standard for a movie with a relatively meager $25 million budget, but that's exactly what it looked like to me when the wolves attacked, and so I wasn't really scared of the big bads at all.
I'd like to see more of this type of film get a wide release going forward (and by extension less of the slasher/torture porn/found footage stuff that has become de rigueur in modern horror), but it has to be executed properly. The premise of The Grey is strong and so is the supporting cast around Neeson, but the commitment beyond that just wasn't there.