"The Grey" is more than a violent survival film

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Liam Neeson turns in a powerful performance in Joe Carnahan’s “The Grey” (Photo Courtesy of Open Road Films).

When the first trailer for “The Grey” hit, the idea of Liam Neeson reuniting with his “The A-Team” director Joe Carnahan for an extended arctic battle with wolves sounded almost too awesome to be true. However, “The Grey” is not the film the trailers make it out to be: a brutal, unexpectedly touching survival film that’s a far cry from the goofy escapism Neeson has been starring in recently.

“The Grey” opens with Ottway (Neeson) working security for an Alaskan drilling team. Once a plane ends up off course and crashes, Ottway finds himself leading a small group of survivors as territorial, vicious wolves pick them off one by one.

It’s a shame “The Grey” is being released in January, because a Thanksgiving weekend release and strong campaign could easily have translated into a Best Actor nomination for Neeson, who could have only made this film at this exact point in his career. Neeson wasn’t always an action hero, and “The Grey” fuses the cinematic badass of “Taken” and “Unknown” with the respected star of “Kinsey” and “Schindler’s List” with ease and grace.

Neeson gives a truly incredible performance here, grounding the film with his gravelly Irish brogue. A scene early on where he prepares a fatally wounded passenger for his impending demise is an exquisitely powerful moment, and one of the first indicators that “The Grey” is going to be something much more complex than you might expect. Neeson continues to impress throughout, and a tragic subplot concerning Ottway’s wife gives added heft to Neeson’s raw, noteworthy performance.

As good as Neeson is, he’s backed by a supporting cast filled with great turns. Dallas Roberts gives a heartfelt performance as perhaps the most decent man in the group, and Frank Grillo’s character, Diaz, is played as the stereotypical grating jerk in the film’s early moments. However, as his character’s layers are stripped away, Grillo adds more and more nuance to the role, climaxing with a beautiful scene by a lakeside.

The film marks a clear departure for Carnahan, who showed great promise with the 2002 cop drama “Narc” but steered away from subtlety in favor of brainless gunfights with films like “Smokin’ Aces.” Here, Carnahan juggles effectively written character beats with a few bravado action scenes. In particular, the plane crash that strands the characters is set up with a haunting shot of the passengers, blissfully unaware of what’s about to happen, before Carnahan throws everyone into pure chaos as the plane begins to break off. It’s a visceral, seat-gripping scene that literally takes your breath away, and it’s barely 20 minutes into the film. Carnahan does just as well with the smaller moments, painting a precise, human portrait of machismo, survival and acceptance in the face of sheer terror and almost certain death.

Much of this death is brought about by packs of wolves that stalk the heroes, and while the special effects bringing them to life aren’t always convincing, the menace that Carnahan’s script and direction instill in them is terrifying. Ottway’s studied expertise in dealing with lupines proves to be a fairly lucky stroke for the group, but the wolves in this film are a constant threat, and “The Grey” often reminds us of that with a vicious attack or even an ominous howl.

Is “The Grey” the movie it’s advertised to be? Absolutely not. It’s a much better film, an emotional powerhouse of a survival thriller with a wonderful performance from Neeson and a reminder that Carnahan can stage intense drama just as well as he can blow stuff up. Audiences may be disappointed by the film’s ending, and while it’s a bit unsatisfying, it’s a masterful, thematically appropriate finale and somehow manages to be both inspiring and tragic. “The Grey” is the survival genre at its very best, a macho film that’s also unabashedly philosophical and moving, and it sets the bar very high for the rest of 2012.

Printed on Friday, January 27 as: 'The Grey' provides example of successful survival film