There was a time when Liam Neeson, as a sensitive magazine editor in Woody Allen’s Husbands And Wives, looked so intimidated by the likes of Mia Farrow and Judy Davis that his 6’4” frame seemed as brittle as papier-mâché. Even Darkman, which cast him as a vengeful urban hero, emphasized his intense vulnerability and inner torment. Now, after an unlikely series of action vehicles, Neeson has evolved into a steely, inscrutable tough guy in the Clint Eastwood/Charles Bronson mold, and it’s this character who approaches parody in The Grey, the ultimate in Movies For Guys Who Like Movies. Director Joe Carnahan, having already cast Neeson as the cigar-chomping ringleader Hannibal in The A-Team, uses him again in the macho role of a grizzled working stiff who squares off against nature and beast in a primal battle of wills. Perhaps appropriately, it’s pitched like a wolf’s howl.
Sounding like the hard-bitten narrator of a justly forgotten film noir, Neeson relays, via voiceover, the outlaw culture of the oil company where he works in deepest Alaska, as well as the personal despair that brought him to this godforsaken outpost. A sharpshooter who tries and fails to turn his gun on himself, Neeson has to fight for survival when a transport plane crashes, leaving him and half a dozen other men stranded in the middle of snowbound nowhere. Worse yet, they’re in wolf territory, and the animals are so provoked by their presence that they’re apparently willing to hunt the intruders down, Jaws: The Revenge-style, across territory stretching roughly from Anchorage to Santa Claus. Meanwhile, there’s dissension in the ranks, as not all of these rugged individualists are willing to accept Neeson as their de facto leader.
The interaction between the men amounts to little more than a few tortured backstories and some high-toned discussions about the existence of God, all punctuated by the occasional CGI wolf attaching itself to someone’s neck. Though Carnahan dials up the testosterone to comically absurd levels, The Grey improves when the dialogue is distilled to a guttural yawp and the men are forced into wrestling with wolves or going MacGyver on the unforgiving elements. Neeson brings gravitas to the table, acting as a legitimizing counterweight to the overwrought dialogue and flesh-tearing lupine hysteria. But in a scenario this persistently ludicrous, he can only do so much.