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Ten Word or Less review: Predator…by Jack London

After a few opening scenes doused in solemn, contemplative narration by star Liam Neeson, then a horrific plane crash sequence which jars and terrifies, it should be clear to the viewer that The Grey isn’t going to be any kind of standard issue action movie.  But just to drive the point home, after the plane crash, survivor Neeson scavenges through the wreckage looking for survivors and supplies.  Lying on what was the ceiling of the plane, a young man is pinned under a seat with blood pouring out of him.  He’s panicked and begging for help as a the few remaining survivors look on in fear, and with a calm that can only come from an experienced and knowing soul, Neeson sits by his side, looks him over without panic and states ‘You’re going to die.’  He holds the guys hand, he talks to him like a priest taking a last confession and he eases this poor soul into the next life.  It’s at this point you should shed any expectations that The Grey is solely about Liam Neeson delivering uppercuts to the chin of a wolf.

Neeson plays Ottway, a sniper working for an Alaskan oil company who picks off wolves that go after pipeline workers.  It’s a job he’s skilled at doing, but holds no love for.  Ottway is a man trapped by a vague hopelessness.  We know little about him other than he’s suicidal over no longer being with a woman we assume is/was his wife and has hidden himself from the world by going off to the edge of the civilization with others also little fit for everyday society.  After the plane crashes, viscous wolves quickly begin to set upon the survivors and Ottway goes into survivor mode, but The Grey doesn’t call on Neeson to put on the facade of the indestructible badass.  Ottway knows more than his other survivors but he’s admittedly no less terrified and helpless.  Though Ottway becomes the defacto leader of this group of men, he possesses very little ability to keep them alive.  His plans for surviving don’t often work, but through no fault of his own.  In The Grey, nature is ruthless and indifferent, no matter how much of a wellworn macho badass you are.  This is a story about how nature at its purist form, death is no more than a calculated, inescapable inevitability.

Neeson’s resurgence as a leading man is very welcome but it has been because of silly action fodder like Taken and The A-Team.  Someone realized that the 60ish Neeson still looked convincing delivering a punch and ran with it.  These new films are comic book romps more in line with the sensibilities of Jason Stratham than the guy who played Oscar Schindler and Michael Collins.  The Grey trades in on Neeson’s rediscovered stardom, the gimmicky trailers lead some to cheekily dub the film Wolfpuncher, but more importantly, his gravitas as a performer is what holds our center of attention.  Neeson’s Ottway is a man who wants to see these men live, but knows all too well that the odds are against them.  He defiantly tries to lead them to salvation and is left railing at God when his efforts again and again prove futile.  The screenplay, which affords more than just Neeson a great deal of soul, gives all of its characters real spirit and personality.

Putting all of this remarkable work together is Joe Carnahan, an unlikely a source for an introspective adventure movie.  Carnahan became a director to watch over a decade ago with his gritty cop drama Narc.  Since then, he’s wasted his talent and time on silly action movies destined to fill the gap between beer ads on Spike TV.  With his credibility in the toilet, Carnahan reemerges to establish himself as someone still very capable of drama which is uncompromising and true.  The Grey is so convincing it freezes you to the bone with its constant onslaught of snow and terror.  He makes this film into a tundra bound, steadfast narrative where our protagonists don’t just run for their life, but observe and contemplate it as it sits on the precipice of ending.  As the survivors dwindle in number, their deaths aren’t handed out with superficial consequence.  The camera dwells upon them as they experience their last thoughts.  What a man sees in his final moments becomes of sincere importance and the movie takes on much deeper dimension.

The Grey has the structure and trappings of a slasher movie, its cast being picked off one by one but unlike a slasher movie, we aren’t rooting for mindless characters to be devoured by a homicidal carnivore.  It’s a movie of bewildering strength that rattles the viewer and leaves them with a real experience to think back on.  Those expecting a convential adventure with Neeson delivering a gut check to the Big Bad Wolf will be thrown for a profound loop.

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