Friday, February 3, 2012

Into the Fray with THE GREY ...!

THE GREY Review:

- The Grey is one incredibly badass movie. I mean, holy crap. Typically, January brings us - if we're lucky - a fun cult movie or two. Maybe a decent horror flick, or a memorable B-movie. In recent years, Liam Neeson has become an unlikely staple of early-in-the-year action flicks. He starred in the awesome Taken a few years back, but has since followed that one up with underwhelming thrillers like last year's Unknown. Well, with THE GREY, we're once again seeing Liam Neeson at the height of his powers. He is awesome in this movie - badass as all hell, yet putting on an acting clinic with a performance so overflowing with gravitas that it will knock you flat. Liam is phenomenal in this film, and the movie as a whole elegantly mixes over-the-top man vs. nature tropes with some genuinely poetic and contemplative moments. But at the end of the day, The Grey is quite simply an instant-classic survival horror movie - a movie that will be passed down from father to son, in dorm rooms and at midnight screenings - years from now, men will gather to watch to get the ol' adrenaline flowing. People will (and already have!) gotten the epic poem at the center of the film inscribed on their skin. The Grey is a movie about never saying die, about fighting until your last breath even if it means - literally - clawing your way through a den of wolves. This is a movie that will, as they say, put some hair on your chest.

In the film, Liam plays John Ottway, a solemn, solitary man who works at a remote Alaskan oil rig. In a place filled with rough n' tumble, man's-men sort of dudes, Ottway might be the manliest of all. Why? Because his job is literally to keep watch outside the base and KILL ANY WOLVES that he spots approaching. For that reason, Ottway has become a bit of an expert on all things lupine. At the same time, he seems to have a bit of a death wish. In flashback, we get vague hints of a life - and a wife - left behind, somewhere far away. And we see that Ottway, perhaps, has contemplated turning the barrel of his gun on himself, and putting an end to his lonely existence.

But when disaster strikes, Ottway's survival instinct kicks in. On a plane ride meant to escort the oil drilling team back to civilization, rocky weather causes a violent and deadly crash. Most of the passengers are killed, but Ottway and several others survive - stranded in the middle of the Alaskan tundra. Immediate concerns include food, water, shelter, and fighting off the all-encompassing cold and harsh weather conditions. Soon, an even bigger concern becomes the ravenous packs of wolves that roam the area. The wolves aren't used to humans stepping on their turf, and so they're more aggressive than usual - actively hunting the men and trying to drive them out of their domain. Given his background, brains, and his stoic, grimly determined demeanor, Ottway becomes the defacto leader of the group, using every trick up his sleeve to ensure that he and his compatriots avoid starving, freezing, or becoming wolf food.

Director Joe Carnahan does a fantastic job here, and I think The Grey is easily his best behind-the-camera effort to date. The movie has plenty of sweeping, epic shots showcasing the film's sprawling Alaskan landscapes, but it's also got a sense of claustrophobic dread that reminded me of movies like John Carpenter's The Thing. There is just this crazy sense of looming, omnipresent dread - you know the wolves are closing in on the characters, and no matter what they do or what direction they turn, escape seems nearly impossible.

But beneath the surface of the classic horror movie-esque plot structure, there's a sort of existential message at the core of The Grey, and I was quite frankly stunned at how well Carnahan and co. pull it off. What I mean is, this is a movie in which the wolves are clearly a metaphor for all of the challenges and obstacles we have to face in our life. And how each of the survivors deals with the wolves reflects on their own attitudes towards life and death, their own ability to give in to fear or to find courage in the darkness. The broader themes of the film come into play in the interactions between Ottway and his fellow survivors, and also in flashback, when we see glimpses of Ottways father and wife. In particular, a poem composed by Ottway's father is of central importance to the film, and in determining Ottway's course of action throughout - and while that could have been cheesy, the way it's used is freaking awesome and quite frankly gave me chills.

Neeson is superb here, to the point where, if this film had been released in 2011, I think there'd be serious talk of Oscar-worthiness. And maybe that talk will resurface by the end of 2012, who knows. But certainly, even though Neeson has in recent years become sort of typecast as the aging, stoic, badass, this still stands as a Neeson performance for the ages. And there are moments here - particularly towards the end of the film, where Neeson breaks out of that stoicism and really and truly goes to some spine-tingling places. What's more, there is undoubtedly an element here of fiction-reflecting-reality. As Ottway's backstory unfolds, and you see the unmistakable parallels to Neeson's own life and some of the tragedies he's faced, his performance becomes that much more powerful and haunting. You can only hope that there was some level of catharsis for Neeson in making this film, but it's clear he had to go to some very dark places to make this performance possible. It's a bit awe-inspiring, really. I mean, damn, Neeson is quite simply the man, and he proves it again, more so than ever, in The Grey.

The rest of the cast is uniformly very good. I think some might take issue with a couple of the supporting performances feeling a bit over the top or cartoonish, but to me that ultimately added to the slight B-movie quality of the film, and felt strongly in the tradition of the films of John Carpenter and others. Frank Grillo's Diaz is the character who plays the cliched asshole of the group at least at first - the one who defies Ottway at every turn. But eventually, the character is fleshed out to the point where he becomes multidimensional. Mostly though, I thought the characters were all well-defined and interesting, and there was a great mix of personalities despite all of the guys being varying degrees of badass.

Other than the somewhat cliched moments of infighting in the group, the only other real issue I had with The Grey was a couple of key moments that just seemed to lack logic. Given that Ottway is supposed to be a survivalist of sorts, there seemed to be more than one occasion where his decisions seemed all too likely to get he and his companions killed. In particular, one scene in which Ottway is convinced that the group must climb hand-over-hand via a loosely-fastened rope, over a deep canyon, to get to the shelter of the trees on the other side - well, it just felt like the kind of thing that no man in their right mind - especially one pushing 60 - would do unless there were absolutely no other options. A couple of questionable moments like that tended to briefly take me out of the movie.

Overall though - holy lord - The Grey is one of the most purely badass and downright awesome movies I've seen in ages. It's a stunning, stirring tale of man vs. nature - more specifically, Liam Neeson vs. hordes of giant, merciless WOLVES. But it's a tale told with style and a surprising amount of substance, ultimately becoming a more-epic-than-expected rumination on life, death, and finding the will to fight on no matter the cost. This is a movie that caused me to raise my fist in triumph as the credits rolled, after one of the more memorable endings you'll likely see in a film all year. This is a movie that's stuck with me, that I'll likely revisit when I need a boost. This is a film that should be remembered come awards season. All that's left to say is: "Once more into the fray. Into the last good fight I'll ever know. Live and die on this day. Live and die on this day." If you don't know what I'm talking about, go see The Grey, and prepare thyself for epicness.

My Grade: A-

1 comment:

  1. Great review Danny! Very articulate and well done. I watched this movie last night and agree 100%. Look for the blooper where the frazzled "rope" becomes a solid cable and then reverts again to a frazzled series of knotted material.