'The Grey' moves to head of the pack

"The Grey"
1984 Private Defense Contractors
1 hour, 57 minutes

Before we get into the actual movie, I'd like to address the slight controversy that has been generated by this week's Alaska survival thriller, "The Grey." PETA, as well as others, I'm sure, have come out to criticize "The Grey" as portraying wolves in an unfair light; castigating them as vicious killers.

 

As most people who know me will attest, I'm about as touchy feely, liberal, animal loving as they come, but I have to disagree with this assessment of the film. "The Grey" portrays wolves as wild animals that will hunt prey that's available to them, and will defend their territory. It's not sympathetic to the wolves, nor is it critical.

And yes, I know there have been incredibly few recorded wolf attacks on humans in modern times. That's irrelevant. The wolves in this movie, realistic though their behavior might turn out to be if a planeload of oil workers happened to crash in the middle of their hunting grounds, are simply a device to tell a larger, man vs. nature story, and finally a story of adversity and the strength it spawns. Heady stuff for what, in advertisements, appears to be "Jaws on the Tundra."

Liam Neeson is Ottway, a company employed sniper, tasked with keeping wolves off pipeline workers in the far north of Alaska. I'm not sure if this position actually exists, but I'd be a little surprised. In fact, out of the entire movie, this small little detail, only a few minutes of the movie, seems the most erroneous -- I doubt rogue wolves are taking runs at groups of oil workers often enough to have to hire a sniper to take care of them.

Regardless, Ottway is a man in a bad way. Personal tragedy has crippled him. Pain and desperation suffuse him, and it's a wonder he can even make it to the plane to Anchorage at the end of his stint. But make it he does, for all the good it does him. Partway through the flight, something goes terribly wrong and the plane crashes into the desolate wilderness. Of all the passengers, seven survive the crash and it's up to Ottway to lead them to safety. But it won't be simply the cold or lack of food the survivors have to worry about. Ottway and crew will be up against an old foe, one that our hero has gotten to know quite well.

And that's pretty much it, as far as plot goes. A bunch of guys crash in the wilderness and have to fight off wolves. But director Joe Carnahan has pulled off something surprising, especially considering his less than impressive filmography. "The Grey" is deeply dramatic, deeply moving, and very well done.

In fact, though it is certainly dressed up as a genre film, a kind of monster movie in the vein of "Jaws" or "Piranha," it is much more than that. It is really only a wolf movie in sheep's clothing.

In reality, "The Grey" is about the road Ottway takes from extreme depression to final self-reliance. The hero's struggle is mirrored by that of several of the other characters, as the concept of the wolf pack is mirrored in the group of marooned pipeliners. It's a clever script with a lot going on behind the scenes and between the lines. Ultimately, the film is much better than you might imagine it would be, considering both the advertising for the film, which led several clever online outlets to label it "Wolfpuncher: The Movie," and the director's previous films.

Carnahan's first film was "Narc," a dark and gritty little police thriller that put the director's name on the map. His next film, however, "Smokin' Aces," was so off the wall, and such a mess that it destroyed much of his credibility. Carnahan next graced us with "The A-Team" which was both a mess and dumb, so even those of us who'd given him the benefit of the doubt had fled.

As I said, I wasn't holding out a lot of hope for "The Grey." Carnahan, on the other hand, was. The film was turning point, of sorts. Would he make simplistic action junk for his whole career, or could he get back to serious filmmaking. "The Grey" is that return and is remarkably successful on a whole host of levels, from action thriller to thoughtful drama. But...

There is a big caveat to all this, but I can, unfortunately, not discuss it without spoiling the entire film. Suffice it to say that there have been some pretty angry audience reactions to the film -- reactions which I completely understand, though disagree with. See the movie and judge for yourself. Despite a few minor problems, the film is nearly flawless in execution and Liam Neeson is amazing. I was a little surprised they chose to release this film in January, considering a fall debut would have meant serious awards consideration. At the very least, I think "The Grey" will re-establish Joe Carnahan's status in the Hollywood pack.

Grade: A

"The Grey" is rated R for some disturbing violence and language.

Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.

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