Making a movie about a small, ethnically diverse group of people, stuck in the middle of hell and with hostile creatures around them? Then James Cameron’s Aliens should be high on your watching list.
The director’s cut, in particular, is a lesson in itself on how to get us to know a bunch of characters properly (seriously: how many character names from recent ensemble action movies can you remember?). It takes a good hour – save for an early facehugger – before it then unleashes the hordes, and the payoff for its patience, and Cameron’s skill in building up tension, remains incredible.
The Grey, though, gets it the wrong way around.
For half of the film, you get a terrific, taut mix of survival horror, action, and tension. You’re dragged, along with a small bunch of characters, into the middle of Alaska, with snow, wind, and very angry wolves for company, and seemingly certain death on the horizon. There’s an incredibly impressive plane crash, Liam Neeson utterly owning the screen, wolves that look and feel like a real threat, and, in director Joe Carnahan, a man who seemingly knows when to hurry things along.
Heck, for the first hour of The Grey, it felt like my armrest had a ‘wolf’ button on it. Every time the film showed signs of slowing down, as the group of survivors threatened to overindulge themselves in too much conversation, I pressed it, and another well-staged wolf attack followed. It was building up to be one of the most enjoyable, well-packed movies of its ilk in some time.
The problem, though, is that my button stopped working. And for the second half of the film, The Grey becomes something else. After spending an hour showing us the impossible odds that this group of survivors face, the film then spends the bulk of its remaining time examining the back story of its characters. It’s as if Carnahan had read complaints about this type of film, and that the characters within them tend to be paper thin. He was thus determined to do something about it.
Yet this fleshing out proves fatal for the momentum that the film has built up. At the very point Carnahan should be applying the accelerator, he elects to hit the brake, and starts taking us the scenic route. Ironically, for a film that’s way too long, by the time the credits roll you’d almost wish it’d had another five minutes to it. But that’s the only part where you’d wish The Grey was longer. It’s seriously flagging for much of its last half hour.
It seems an odd criticism, one that flies in the face of common storytelling sense, but this is one of the few examples where a little more economy with one or two of the characters – outside of Neeson’s (whose is more successfully fleshed out) – might have helped. Even with the added foundation that the script gives to the group of survivors, you’ll do well to remember too much about them afterwards.
You’ll remember Neeson, though. His performance papers over the film’s cracks as fast as they appear, and in the first half in particular, his reputation as action thriller cinema’s new hero is firmly cemented. Punching a wolf in the face? Check. Dirty fingernails? Check. Growling one liners? Well, when he spits out “I’m going to start beating the shit out of you in the next five seconds”, you’ll be hard pushed to find anyone who disbelieves him.
Neeson is also your go-to man when it comes to surviving in extreme winter conditions. Armed with a comfy woolly jumper out of the catalogue and a lifetime’s supply of wolf trivia (think of him as an angry and dangerous Dr Doolittle), Carnahan wisely gives his leading man a lot of early screen time. It really pays off, too, not least in a quiet, tender moment, immediately after the stunning plane crash, that’s terrifically handled.
At his best, Carnahan himself puts in excellent work, too. His early cocktails of noise and silence, flashback and current story, deliberately jar to good effect. His action sequences are quick and brutal, he builds tension brilliantly, there’s at least one good jump, and a few good, gutsy laughs, too. Furthermore, his deployment of the wolves, showing us just what we need to see, and not a lot more, is excellent.
The creatures themselves are realised impressively, too. A marriage of physical and CG effects, along with real-life animals, they never fail to convince. Ironically, when The Grey does have a sizeable CG pitfall in the second half of the film, the wolves themselves are nowhere to be seen.
The Grey, though, simply loses its way through good intentioned story decisions that prove far less interesting than the excellent opening half promises. It’s the proverbial problem of the elaborate build-up, only for the final shot to trickle just wide of the goal.
The film still does a lot of things right, and it’s comfortably worth seeing it for Neeson, who proves once more that a bloody good actor can do wonders for a blockbuster movie (the depth he gives to his character’s backstory is impactful).
Yet it’s hard to lose the feeling that The Grey gathered together the right ingredients, and lost it a little in the recipe itself. I remain a fan of Joe Carnahan’s work, but dearly wish he’d turned his film the other way around. As it stands, The Grey rockets off to a terrific start, and only just splutters over the finish line.
Still: it does feature Liam Neeson punching a wolf in the face.