If you're ever stranded in a frigid wilderness after a plane crash and wolves are stalking you, don't do what people do in The Grey. You will die, either from animal mauling, exposure or boredom.
The Grey is an appropriate title for a bland movie that doesn't give Liam Neeson much to rage against, and he's an actor who's at his best when raging. This isn't a revenge thriller like Taken or Unknown. It is simply man vs. nature and nature fights dirty, or at least wolves do.
Neeson plays Ottway — real men don't use first names — an Alaskan oil rig worker who almost puts the movie out of its misery in the first five minutes. Maybe it's the recurring flashbacks of his absent wife (Anne Openshaw) leading Ottway to jam a rifle barrel in his mouth and nearly pull the trigger. More likely it's living with yahoo co-workers in confined quarters, and nearly dying with them in a plane crash.
Ottway intones in his head that these are "men unfit for mankind," as they smash each other with balsa wood tables and pool cues for fun. He's prone to such Hemingway-lite voiceovers of survival and regret. You wonder if all oil drillers are truly so poetic in their inner monologues, or if we're just fortunate to hear them in Neeson's brogue. Surely Ottway is worth saving, or watching go savage as he saves himself.
Ottway works at the rig as a wolf sniper, shooting the beasts before they attack his colleagues. The job gives him insight into the thought processes of wolves that will come in handy. For example, Ottway knows wolves have a kill zone with a 30-mile radius, making it really stupid for the crash survivors to try hiking to safety through knee-deep snow but they do it anyway. Setting the wreckage afire to create a smoke plume that rescuers could see is never discussed.
Seven survivors (for now) don't scour the wreckage for extra clothing, or even the rifle Ottway uses to shoot wolves, although he conveniently carries a few shells for makeshift stick weapons. These guys are unfit for mankind and nobody packed a gun in carry-on luggage? Despite the subzero temperatures, nobody wraps their faces for frostbite protection. That might muffle their bold talk and confessions of fear.
Director Joe Carnahan doesn't do anything except plop these men into an inescapable situation then watch them try in vain. Attacks happen in the dark, with the director pushing his camera closer to the action than necessary, or in the distance where terror is subdued. Then it's back to macho bonding in the face of danger until the next attack, leading to an "is that all there is?" finale.
The Grey does convey the feeling of slow, agonizing death but not in a good way. It's the audience feeling dread of a bad movie becoming inevitable, with nothing left except waiting for the pain to end. Carnahan didn't make a movie unfit for mankind but it certainly isn't worth mankind's money.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365.