Welcome to Monday Morning Review, a new feature here at Movies.com where we provide a review of a film the Monday morning after it arrives in theaters. As such, this review is written for people who have seen the film, and will discuss plot points, spoilers, etc, so read it only if you've seen it or if you don't mind knowing everything that happens.
The mid-January release date for The Grey held little promise. But the presence of Joe Carnahan, presumably in atonement for The A-Team, and Liam Neeson, presumably seeking the same even as he expands his late-life action hero career, did. And certainly, the arctic setting hardly suggested anything too off the beaten path -- there are, as a man once said, strange things done in the midnight sun by the men who moil for gold. Film makers as diverse as John Carpenter, Andrey Konchalovskiy and Frank Capra have all made films where the cold steals your breath, and you die.
But put aside the knock-'em-down pleasures like the ever-dwindling series of cast members who wind up as Wolf Chow (or worse, Fate Chow) or the image of Neeson as Beowulf in L.L. Bean, with glass brass knuckles and a knife taped to his fist as the last man standing. The surprise in The Grey,and what raises it above the level of mere action and into the level of great storytelling, is the time and effort both the script and the film making take to establish the emotional intimate undertones that deepen and distinguish the mythic, unrelenting hunger of the narrative. These men, near death after a plane malfunction, surrounded by corpses and then surrounded by wolves -- on the pitch alone, it sounds at best disposable. But the emotional weight is what gives it the mass and measure of a burden.
The Grey is being sold with the now-established second-act Neeson persona -- the man of action, the lean, mean, Armenian-killing machine of Taken. But from the very start, Neeson's matter-of-fact narration about his life and work (and Neeson works as a hunter, as Hemingway would have liked it) makes his character's journey far richer and relevant than simple survival. His voice-over is letter to a woman says left him. A swipe of a hand leaves dust trails across a picture of them both in happier times, and we know time has passed. But after the crash, and as Neeson stumbles forward away from certain death, he hears the stories of the men around him -- the cowards, the pragmatists, the braggarts, the hopeful -- and those stories inevitably turn towards the stories of the women, and the love, they left behind as they went to the wild in search of fortune, forgiveness or forgetting.
We know Neeson has his own story, but it's a small moment at the end -- a single drop in an I.V. drip, a wave of understanding -- that clarifies how Neeson’s wife didn’t leave him for another, or willingly. And the possibility of choosing death -- the early-in-the-film shot of Neeson putting a rifle barrel in his mouth, understandably enough, isn’t one of the images Open Road is using to sell this film -- is forgotten thanks to the probability of having death thrust upon him.
The post-credits sting -- less than a second, deliberately ambiguous, answering nothing, and most certainly not the set-up for The Grey 2: Even Grey-er -- is also in keeping with Carnahan’s mythic concerns here -- man and beast slumped against each other, dead or dying. Yes, the ad campaign for the film promises plenty of Neeson-on-wolf violence, and the fact the film doesn’t show us the final fight between the Alpha wolf and Alpha-male Neeson is both creatively wise (How could any fight between the two compare to what we imagine that battle to be like?) and, one can easily imagine, possibly a hearty go-to-hell gesture of defiance for the market-driven concerns of conventional action films and the machismo-driven concerns of conventional action film fans. After too-many glib shoot-’em-ups -- Smokin’ Aces,The A-Team -- it’s fascinating to see Carnahan going back to the morality and methodical brilliance of his fascinating Narc, with several of that film’s thematic elements also in The Grey -- life-and-death situations, complicated men, absent women, and the possibility of death as a form of deliverance. Everyone was hoping The Grey would be better than an ordinary January movie; I think you can argue that The Grey might wind up being better than a substantial majority of the films released this year.