Wilderness survival movies — such as “Alive,” “The Edge” and “The Way Back” — sometimes get fairly metaphysical, and artists often grapple with the big theme of “man versus nature.”
In “The Grey,” director Joe Carnahan takes on the topic, and gets a little more serious than in his previous films such as “Smokin’ Aces” and “The A-Team.” Still, the movie is less concerned with deep thoughts than with raw guts.
Liam Neeson stars as Ottway, a brooding, withdrawn rifleman whose job is to shoot wolves that venture too close to an Alaska oil drilling station.
“A job at the end of the world,” he murmurs in his narration.
When the time comes for some R&R, a plane carrying workers back to Anchorage crashes in the middle of the snowy wilderness. Only eight survive, including Ottway, who takes the lead.
He stumbles upon a wolf eating a dead body and engages it, thereby angering an entire pack. He decides the men must leave the wreckage and make for the trees, or die.
Carnahan — who was briefly a student at San Francisco State University — gives his men plenty to do between wolf attacks. One of them, Diaz (Frank Grillo), has his braggadocio tested, and Talget (Dermot Mulroney) must face his fear of heights.
The movie isn’t serious enough to be one of those stories in which man regresses into a primal animal state. Its focus is not so much the battle of man versus himself, or of man versus nature, but simply man versus wolf.
So the men sharpen sticks and plan their attack. When they manage to kill a wolf, they cook him and eat him while standing around the fire.
They do it partly for nourishment, but mainly to send a message to the other wolves.
Carnahan, who co-wrote the screenplay with the original short- story writer, Ian Mackenzie Jeffers, nicely balances the conflict, giving attention to the characters’ personalities and the sinister, chilly backdrop — and adding a good dose of pulp.
Neeson is a huge help. He’s a full-grown actor, not a living visual effect or a bodybuilder, and not in the least boyish. He has a career full of clout, but knows how to go lowbrow.
Carnahan and Neeson last worked together in the silly, goofy “The A-Team,” which definitely focused on “boys” and/or “guys.” By contrast, “The Grey” is one of those rare movies that focuses on men.
Starring Liam Neeson, Dallas Roberts, Frank Grillo, Dermot Mulroney, Nonso Anozie, Joe Anderson
Written by Joe Carnahan, Ian Mackenzie Jeffers
Directed by Joe Carnahan
Running time 1 hour 47 minutes