I adore man vs nature movies, I have done ever since I saw Leslie Nielsen bare-chest wrestling a bear in Day of the Animals (1977). The thought of seeing Liam Neeson (who’s really carved out a surprising career as a tough guy in the past decade) fighting wolves in the Alaskan wilderness was an easy sell. But whilst The Grey certainly delivers on man vs nature genre conventions It’s also trying to be something a lot more. Director and writer Joe Carnahan wants to take us on a brutal journey that is as much about survival, masculinity (aka some serious bromance), and loss as it is about running from rampant wolves. And It’s not just the narrative that’s a surprise, Carnahan really slaps you in the face from the get-go with a tone and visual style which is not at all symptomatic of genre movies. The Grey feels more like a hard hitting gritty drama which, has way more in common with Carnahan’s Narc (2002) than it does his A-Team (2010). There’s certainly some wonderful snow filled cinematography, but on the whole Carnahan keeps things handheld and frantic.
Gore hounds and action fans shouldn’t fear though, you still get plenty of both. The numerous wolf attacks and the spectacular plane crash sequence are all worthy of note. Again Carnahan has opted to keep the action close in frame and handheld. Gone is the slick, high octane action of The A-Team, instead this is bone crunching, wince inducing stuff from start to finish. Another victory comes in the lead performance from Neeson who finally turns in an action performance with room for acting. Forget about Neeson’s recent turns in The A-Team, Clash of the Titans, or Unknown, here Carnahan has managed to drag the same kind of gruff leading man performance from him that he did from Ray Liotta in Narc.
The true outstanding factor of the movie however is the insistence on location shooting. With the beautiful wilderness of British Columbia standing in for Alaska, you can feel the cold experienced by the actors, see it in their red-raw hands, frozen lips, and steam breath. Yes there’s obviously work done on sound stages, but for the most the cast and their stunt doubles are wading through knee high snow, running through frozen woodland, and jumping into icy streams for real. And that gives the movie a real visually visceral edge. In keeping with this commitment, Canahan keeps the CGI wolves in the background and in the shadows for the most part, deploying them sparingly and during attack scenes, whilst also thankfully delivering real wolves and animatronics.
Not everything is perfect however, and some of the gushing reviews are a little generous in my opinion, as this is not a film without flaws. There’s a flashback too many for sure, some of the film’s metaphors are shoved down your throat where a little more subtlety is needed, and the dialogue is in places to perfect and profound for a group of men that are as grittty and in as nasty a situation as the film wants us to believe. Neeson in particular has some dialogue which is just too overly profound in certain situations. In short the dialogue at times jars with the style. However these are small gripes in the larger picture. Hats off to Carnahan and Neeson who both show us what skills they still have to offer.
Liked The Grey? make sure you check out Deadly Movies Top 5 (non werewolf) Movie Wolves here