The Grey (2011)

(On-demand video, June 2012) We don’t see that many men-against-nature survival thrillers nowadays, but something like The Grey can be powerful enough to last us a while, especially when it takes a standard action-movie premise and turns it into an excuse to discuss existentialist themes.  From the first few moments, it’s obvious that the trailers promising a B-grade survival thriller have been telling us only part of the story, because The Grey soon turns contemplative about humankind’s willingness to live and die.  Liam Neeson is superb in a lead role that echoes the Liamsploitation of Taken and Unknown but also makes use of his gravitas to lend further dramatic weight to the result.  As half a dozen blue-collar oil workers find themselves stranded in Alaska following a plane crash, they have to figure out how to survive their harsh environment, and the pack of wolves that start hunting them.  As you can expect, a lot of people die in this film, not necessarily in the order we’d expect them to fall (the script is fond of giving characters some depth right before they exit) and certainly not gloriously.  The tone is grim, but to its credit it’s grim throughout: the ending, which may have felt bleak in other circumstances, here feels fully justified.  This isn’t a film we may have expected from writer/director Joe Carnahan after the enjoyably simple-minded combo of Smokin’ Aces and The A-Team: You have to go back to 2002’s Narc in order to find something similarly hefty in his filmography.  The Grey actually manages to combine both thrills and thoughts, putting some solid thematic content within a thriller framework.  It works pretty well, and you do (eventually) get to see Neeson punch a wolf in the face.

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