Universal // 2011 // 118 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Erich Asperschlager // May 8th, 2012
"Once more into the fray, into the last good fight I'll ever know. Live and die on this day."
Although Liam Neeson is associated with movies like Schindler's List and Rob Roy, his career has been anything but conventional. From early roles in Krull and Darkman to The Phantom Menace, Neeson is a serious actor who isn't afraid to have fun. In recent years, he has carved a new niche for himself, in action movies like Taken and Unknown, and blockbusters like Clash of the Titans. In his latest, Neeson reunites with The A-Team director Joe Carnahan for the wilderness survival thriller The Grey, co-written by Carnahan and author Ian MacKenzie Jeffers, based on his short story Ghost Walker.
When an airplane carrying Alaskan oil rig workers goes down in the middle of nowhere, the survivors must band together to brave the elements and find help, a dire situation that gets even worse when they are targeted by a pack of killer wolves.
The Grey had its share of trouble in the theater. Some of those problems, like the PETA and Humane Society protests over its depiction of wolves, were beyond the studio's control. But it suffered just as much, if not more, from the way it was marketed. The Grey is not the action movie shown in ads and trailers. There's plenty of wolf-on-human mayhem, but those harrowing moments are sandwiched between quieter, character-driven scenes. The film is primarily about a group of men who must rely on each other to survive the harsh cold and the heartless predators picking them off one by one.
The Grey is more of an ensemble film than the marketing makes it seem. The poster, and now the Blu-ray cover art, is all about a bloodied Liam Neeson and his steely gaze. His character, Ottway, is the hero, but that doesn't mean the other oil rig workers are just wolf fodder. Even if the characters are broadly drawn, Carnahan delves deeper than most genre thrillers. Their arguments, admissions, and philosophical wrangling gives us reason to care what happens to each of them. It helps that Carnahan assembled a stellar cast, including Dermot Mulroney (Zodiac), Frank Grillo (Warrior), Dallas Roberts (3:10 to Yuma), Joe Anderson (The Crazies), Nonso Anozie (Game of Thrones), James Badge Dale (The Departed), and Ben Bray (No Country for Old Men). Whether they are the first to be taken out by wolves or the last, they make a lasting impression.
Still, this is Liam Neeson's movie, and he's not only the star, he's also the alpha male. His character knows everything about wolves, explained by his pre-crash job as a sniper protecting the camp from wild animals. He knows all about their territorial range and behavior, providing necessary exposition at the right moments. He can even tell what the wolves are doing in the dark, just by listening to them howl and bark. He's the best fighter, the one who keeps calm when everyone else is falling apart, and the one who fashions the makeshift weapons they use to fight the wolves. His lack of apparent weakness threatens to make him one dimensional. Luckily, Neeson acts the hell out of his role, elevating the material and anchoring the film.
The Grey isn't formulaic, but it sometimes plays things safe, relying too heavily on jump scares and pat emotional payoffs. The film also belies its B-movie roots with some suspect visual effects. Carnahan's realistic depiction of frigid desolation is undermined by iffy CG wolf work. It doesn't kill the tension but it does break the illusion. For its minor missteps, The Grey is still full of surprises. Don't be too quick to assume you know how the story plays out. Carnahan might use a familiar framework, but it's in service of a uniquely thrilling, moving film.
The Grey comes to Blu-ray with a 2.40:1 AVC-encoded transfer that accurately represents the director's intentions, as unusual as those intentions may be. When it comes to visuals, The Grey might as well be The Grain. Carnahan and cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi desaturated the picture and added noise, giving the entire film a grainy look that stands out in good and bad ways. The look might turn off some viewers, but the unconventional visuals don't take anything away from the stunning footage they caught on film. With few exceptions, The Grey was filmed not in the studio, but in the real Canadian wilderness. Carnahan shot the film outdoors, subjecting his actors to harsh conditions and subzero temperatures. The results speak for themselves. It makes for one of the most raw depictions of human survival in a major studio film.
No matter what you think of the visuals, there's no denying that The Grey is an audio powerhouse. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix uses both the surround soundscape and volume to full effect. You might have to crank your system to hear some of the dialogue, but it's worth it when things start to go crazy. The plane crash sequence alone is worth the experience, with explosive, floor-shaking bass hits that will make you think twice about ever flying again. The audio is no less impressive once the story shifts to the snow. Whistling wind, howling wolves, and Marc Streitenfeld's haunting minimal score circle around the rear channels, creating one of the most immersive mixes I've ever heard.
The Grey is light on bonus features, but the two included extras are worth a look, and listen. First up, a scotch-soaked audio commentary with the director, and editors Roger Barton and Jason Hellmann. The trio has a good time together. It's a brash and self-congratulatory track that tackles Hollywood's skewed view of masculinity, PETA, the harsh shooting conditions, and the film's controversial ending. The disc also comes with six deleted scenes, totaling around 22 minutes. These scenes range from brand new material to extended or alternate versions of sequences that made the final cut. If you plan to listen to the commentary, do it first, since Carnahan and the editors provide background information about the excised scenes.
The Grey is a difficult film to categorize, which is why it left some viewers confused when they saw it in the theater, and will leave still more confused when they watch it at home. It's a shame, because Joe Carnahan has created something special -- a character drama that stimulates your brain at the same time it raises your heart rate. Carnahan's wilderness is a brutal place where death is a misstep away, where humans aren't at the top of the food chain, and where survival, even of the movie's top-billed star, is uncertain. I hope viewers give The Grey a chance on Blu-ray. It may not be the film you're expecting, but that's okay. It's better.
Arooooooooooooo! Not guilty!
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Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 118 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes
* DVD Copy
* Digital Copy
* Official Site