It'll be understandable if you have to hurdle some mental obstacles while watching this movie. First of all, if you've seen the trailer a couple times (like I had, always a mistake) then you've already got a problem because it most likely made you extremely excited to see what looks like Taken 3: The Wolfening.. I know I was ready for Liam Neeson to just kung fu his way through a forest full of murderous wolves. That was going to be plenty. I had the movie already storyboarded in my brain. Those wolves were going to rue the day they decided to become wolves. They would have deserved it, too, for trying to eat Neeson and all his plane crash survivor friends.
That's not exactly how it all goes down. Yes, there's hand-to-paw combat, some of it pivotal, and it's a fairly consistent plot point. But it turns out the movie is about something else entirely. So that may be your second hurdle, finding out that a film you've already decided is going to be a blast of schlocky violent amusement has turned into a whole other creature, one that's truly grief-stricken and existential. It's as though someone forgot to tell the movie that this is January, the month when we're supposed to be watching films about demon-possessed cell phones and brain-damaged gospel choirs, not grueling, meaning-of-life survival dramas.
Neeson and his surly band of roughneck comrades (including Dermot Mulroney, Frank Grillo and Dallas Roberts), oil company workers whose small plane has crashed in the hostile-to-humans Alaskan wilderness, have to fight blizzards, deadly ravines, each other, their own wills and packs of hungry wolves -- a supporting cast comprised of real trained animals and animatronic lookalikes for whom it is always lunchtime. And in the midst of this horror-survival story that often plays like a frozen Friday the 13th, the cast routinely stops to chat and ponder the meaning of human connection and existence. Neeson, particularly, is plagued by memories of family, a poem he can't stop reciting, vague remorse and visions of a mysterious woman who's no longer around.
Initially, that stop-start rhythm is a pain. You keep wanting it to shift gears and deliver more action, more danger, more wolf attacks and, hopefully, more of them getting their wolf asses kicked by Neeson. And you do get plenty of that. It's exciting and suspenseful, occasionally silly, downright impossible in at least one key scene, even a little punishing, yet never dull.
But as the characters weaken and descend into slow-motion frostbite, as the atmosphere turns even more grim and hopeless, you also get that you're now watching an adaptation of a do-or-die story Jack London forgot to write, all of it punctuated by dreamlike images of a spouse who beckons Neeson from what has to be some kind of afterlife, while he screams at the sky, yelling out to God to prove himself. In other words, it's going to pull the rug out from under you in a surprisingly decent way and give you what you didn't know you wanted: an action-thriller shot through with the grief of its real-life widowed star, a B-movie with a broken heart.