Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Grey: Liam the (un?)Likely

Taken put Liam Neeson's career in a peculiar spot. Despite the fact that he had served as a mainstay in action films of any ilk for a decade beforehand (playing submariner, Jedi and crusader alike), Pierre Morel and Luc Besson tailored for him the flashiest vehicle he'd seen since Schindler's List. Even in the face of Taken's ridiculousness - something that works in surprising harmony with its energy and sheer fun - Neeson nonetheless turned in a chilling, committed performance, one that revitalized his reputation as an action star but somehow led him down a path of mostly forgettable blockbusters.

At first glance, The Grey appears to be another feint at capitalizing on the wake of badassery Neeson left after rescuing incompetent Maggie Grace. And...well, it is, really. I think a word of high praise is in order for the movie because at the very least, it refuses to fall into the trap that its marketing might have otherwise suggested. The movie is by no means a "LIAM NEESON PUNCHES WOLVES TO DEATH!!!" neckbeard-fest, so it at least exercises some minor element of restraint. Regardless, it's not exactly a fresh film. It exploits all of Neeson's more readily apparent traits, creating a character that is learned and yet world-weary, reserved and yet frightening, discretionary but brutal. Solid casting, to be sure, but not exactly imaginative. The only real differences between his character here and his daddy-on-a-rampage in Taken (besides increased use of the fuck word) are crafted by the geography that surrounds him, a still white expanse that writer/director Joe Carnahan falls over himself exploiting. It's lonely. Thus, Ottway is lonely. The people who survived the plane crash with him, as evidenced by their talks of the sex they aren't having and the children and spouses they miss, are lonely. It is a barren landscape, one that eventually reduces all creatures within it to mere survival instinct - a concept that allows Carnahan to go after another metaphor, the hacky and overly obvious "man as wolf" parallel. As the wolves encircle this motley band of survivors, the "alpha" and "omega" figures of each pack become painfully clear, both overwritten and uncreatively sequenced. The grasping at metaphysical and existential doubt is noble for what could easily have been a dumb beastie flick, but as expressed through a rather samey group of roughnecked family men, The Grey doesn't really have a lot to say. (And man, that lame-ass poem...)

What Carnahan lacks in authorial subtlety, he attempts to make up for in image. Here he finds mixed results. Some of his stiller compositions are wonderfully colored, almost painterly; a fur-lined coat mottled with blood, or a pool of red diffusing underneath a thin layer of paw-print-shaped ice. He clearly has considerable reverence for the terrain he's shooting in, and it repays him in kind. In putting together his action scenes, however, Carnahan fails to consistently rise to the challenges presented to him. The first of these, obviously, is the use of wolves as the primary antagonist. Cuts during the wolf attacks are quick and nonsensical, surely to disguise the fact that the cast is being attacked by a collection of puppets. Even without direct wolf violence, however, the visual language is always a little bit muddled - a character who's got SOMETHING caught on SOMETHING ELSE as he shimmies across a rope, for instance, or a poorly-staged chase by a river that mostly amounts to a bunch of guys stumbling around in the snow. Worse yet, the movie often leans on cheap shock cues to elicit thrill, which seems particularly flagrant given how enamored the movie is with its own quiet. Quite simply, it's difficult to tell what's going on a lot of the time in The Grey's more frenetic scenes; because they are fairly few in number, it doesn't doom the film, but more clarity and better puppetry might have increased the menace of the proceedings a bit more.

Far be it from me to fault a movie for its ambition, but the fact that The Grey attempts so much makes it all the more disheartening that it generally doesn't succeed at any of it. Neeson is predictably excellent playing a role that is no particular challenge to him; the themes are mature, sure, but limited and obvious; the action, despite visceral moments, chronically falls short. Worth catching on DVD, or if you've got eight bucks to blow on a matinee ticket, but poised at the beginning of the year this will almost surely be swallowed by the films that follow it. C+

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