There’s never been any question that Liam Neeson is not a man to be trifled with. Whether he was freeing Jews in Schindler’s List, avenging the defilement of his wife in Rob Roy, or giving the only worthwhile performance in Phantom Menace, Neeson has always been a charismatic and thoroughly believable leading man with an edge. 2009’s Taken took that to a whole new level, though, and simultaneously changed the culture (and relative importance) of the ridiculous action film and Neeson’s overall impression. When the trailer for The Grey started making the rounds, my friends and I had a grand time comparing it to Taken and joking about how nature didn’t stand a chance against a Liam Neeson throat chop. (In fact, I should probably just put together a timeline of the text messages we exchanged and let that stand as my review.) I very much enjoy the ridiculous notion that Neeson is engaging in some sort of gladiator-like event in which Hollywood sends their most blood-thirsty champions to battle him and he unceremoniously dispatches them: Serbians (Taken)? No problem. German spies (Unknown)? No problem. A tank falling like an anvil from the sky (The A-Team)? No problem. Finally, in a last ditch effort to save face, Hollywood called upon CGI wolves with a taste for human flesh. How could Neeson possibly stave off such an onslaught?
John Ottway (Neeson) is at the end of his rapidly fraying rope. Left alone by his wife and with very few marketable skills, he winds up in the Alaskan wilderness, hired to shoot wolves that threaten the safety of the roughneck employees working on a pipeline. He has nothing to live for and is on the verge of suicide. But on his way home to Anchorage, his plane crashes and he finds himself as one of seven survivors in the middle of a winter wasteland. Ottway springs into action, gathering up the survivors and formulating a plan to hike out to safety. But before his plans can come to fruition, the small group is beset upon by a pack of hungry and blood thirsty wolves who furiously pick off the survivors one by one. With the wolves at his heels, the blistering cold in his face, and no definite sense of where he is, Ottway finds his desire for death put to the test.
The success of Taken has created a two-sided phenomenon in my mind. On the one hand, at nearly 60 years old, Neeson’s career has hit a new stride that very few actors are able to achieve wherein millions of younger viewers will see whatever movie he is in, at least in large part, because he is in it. That’s where I’m at, anyway. I know if I’m going into a Neeson film, I’m going to have a darn good time and I’m going to be impressed with what a boss the man is. On the other hand, however, it’s difficult to go into a Neeson action movie and not expect Taken Part 2. In my mind, Unknown was Taken: Germany, The A-Teamwas Taken with Friends, and Battleship will be Taken: Alien Invasion (all of this leading up to, of course, Taken 2 which comes out later this year). That feeling makes it difficult to transition to a different concept if a given film aspires to be something other than an unofficial Taken sequel.
And that’s where I’m at with The Grey.
When you’re expecting Liam Neeson to be himself (a grade-A boss) and just kickpunch the crap out of every wolf who happens to cross his path, it comes as quite a shock when it turns out that the wolves are actually far more up to the task of killing Neeson than any group of Serbians ever were. There is a lot more at play than meets the eye with The Grey and that serves as both a pleasant surprise and a bit of a letdown. I was not prepared for the deep, philosophical undercurrent that runs through every aspect of this film. As I adjusted, I found that for the first two-thirds at least, the two sides of the film (the awesome, butt-kicking side and the deeper, serious side) complemented each other quite well. And for a while director Joe Carnahan had his cake and ate it, too: his in-depth exploration into the darker elements of the human soul went hand-in-hand with Neeson’s general awesomeness, including his utterance of one of the five greatest tough-guy quotes I can ever remember (seriously, this movie is worth seeing just to hear him threaten one of his fellow survivors with one of the most blunt, harsh, and menacing statements I’ve ever heard).
But I confess the conclusion of The Grey has me perplexed. Without spoiling anything for anyone, it’s fair to say that there essentially isn’t a conclusion. It closes on a note that is about as ambiguous as you’ll ever experience, perhaps one step short of the masterful/infuriating (depending on your opinion) close to No Country For Old Men. Just when you think the film is going to ramp up into a fresh round of throat chops and jump kicks, the screen goes black and the closing credits roll. And if I’m being totally honest, I still don’t know how I feel about this. I admire Carnahan’s willingness to take a risk and there’s no questioning the quality of the filmmaking involved here. But it takes a special film to properly execute the non-ending-ending and I’m not sure that The Grey qualifies. The conclusion flips the course of the film on its head and makes you reconsider its overall focus and while that could be considered a stroke of genius, it didn’t completely work for me. All said, The Grey is a complex, worthwhile film but not one that I’m ready to anoint as a “great” action flick. I guess I’ll have to hold onto that title until Taken 2 rolls around.