The Grey – 4.5 stars

Liam Neeson works in Alaska as a sniper protecting workers from wolves.  He’s at the end of his tether, trapped in a faraway hell where all around him, the dregs do the hard work in a barren wasteland, drinking, drugging and fighting at night.  Near suicidal, Neeson grabs a flight to Anchorage, which goes down in a part of the frozen tundra controlled by a marauding wolf pack. Neeson leads a group of men in their attempt to survive the elements and the wolves.

At first blush, The Grey seems a drearier, heavier The Edge, without the sharpness of a Mamet script or the tension born of a romantic entanglement.  Surprisingly, given the director’s track record, this story of men turns out to be a great deal more than a thriller.  We learn a little about each of the survivors, and Neeson, who was ready to throw his life away, draws purpose from and provides comfort to men suddenly facing death.  There is a beautiful scene after the crash, where Neeson consoles a gravely injured passenger, tells the man he is dying and asks him to think of one he loves to walk him out of this world.  What follows is indeed very thrilling, but also deep and even elegiac.  As characters meet their fate, you find yourself empathizing strongly with them, not only because of their plight but because you have invested in them.

Neeson is strong as a lost man reconnected to humanity through this nightmare. He should be nominated for an Oscar, but given the vehicle, it cannot be. The ensemble cast is also formidable, with special mention to Frank Grillo as an ex-con survivor who naturally resists Neeson’s leadership.

The Grey was directed and co-written by Joe Carnahan, who helmed the excessive and stupid Smokin’ Aces and The A Team, so things are looking up.

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