The James Clayton Column: Liam Neeson versus wolves and cult concept cocktail moviemaking

Inspired by Liam Neeson’s tussle with wolves in The Grey, James comes up with a few similar ideas. Sir Ben Kingsley versus polar bears, anyone…?

“Live or die on this day” is a decent tagline, but it’s just not good enough for freshly released flick The Grey. It’s dramatic and sets the prospective audience up for some adrenaline-pumping mortal peril, but it doesn’t do justice to what might be one of the greatest high-concept movie pitches in history.

Really, the poster should be proclaiming the following statement, which was undoubtedly the original pitch put to movie producers only moments after its beautiful inception: “Liam Neeson with broken bottle knuckledusters versus wolves in the snow”.

That’s all you need to know about The Grey, and that’s why I and many others are going to go and see it at the cinema. Neeson. Wolves. Wilderness. Battle to the death violence. This is inspired pure brilliance.

There’s undoubtedly a lot more to Joe Carnahan’s new movie about some men stranded in snowbound Alaska when their plane crashes, but we’ll have plenty of time for backstories and deep themes later. Right now, I’m talking about gut instinct and the instant excitement of the basic premise – the stuff that doesn’t jive with your intellectual reasoning but directly attacks your geekstreak and primal pleasure centres.

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I take the fundamentals of The Grey as one cinematic example of this. Who cares if it’s good, bad, clever or dumb when it sounds so bloody cool?

What we’ve got here is a nice set-up for a survivalist ‘nasty nature’ feature. Add Neeson, who’s become a later-career action star thanks to films like Taken, The A-Team and Unknown, and you have a sure-fire hit that can’t be anything other than spectacular entertainment.

The combined power, strength and majesty of Zeus, Qui Gon-Jinn and Aslan the messianic lion of Narnia burns in those blue eyes, and his shard-fists are ready to be unleashed on savage lupine fiends in the wintery forest. Moreover, icy conditions make everything even more exhilaratingly tense (see, for example, The Thing) and having non-human antagonists ensures wild animal craziness and the potential for ultraviolence beyond the capability of civilised people. Animals, after all, lack social niceties, have no compunctions about bloodshed and don’t make silly quips after they’ve killed someone.

Even though The Grey appears as a more serious feature with less schlock value, I detect a similar spirit to modern day grindhouse movies like Machete and Hobo With A Shotgun. These features sucker punch the prospective audience with an appealing concept high in cult value that can’t fail to generate gleeful excitement.

“It’s a Tex-Mex B-movie slashterpiece with Danny Trejo slashing druglords with a giant machete!” or “Rutger Hauer is a hobo with a shotgun, fighting sleazeballs in Scum Town, Canada!” All it takes is one sentence and you’re in, completely enthused about a film that for all you know may have nothing more to it than the inconsequential combination of several interesting elements brought together for novelty or shock value.

There’s nothing wrong with a little novelty, though, and I completely approve of random plot generation with a touch of Cluedo about it. In truth, all you need to do to make an action flick is find a star actor, give ‘em a distinctive weapon and pit them against a beastly protagonist. That’s what The Grey does, and you don’t even need to see it to know it’s going to be great.

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Following this method, through, I personally picked some actors, weapons and animal opponents and put them in a hat. I mixed them up and drew them out at random in order to generate possible premises for new movies. The following are what my fingers – guided by the forces of fate – came up with, and I’m sure you’ll agree that they are all irresistible, essential features that need to be made. You’ll definitely agree after you’ve emerged from The Grey, buzzing having watched Liam Neeson punch out a wolf.

Sir Ben Kingsley with a crossbow versus polar bears

Following the ‘threaten venerable thesp with vicious carnivores in a cold climate’ formula through, there’s no doubt that Sir Ben’s solo mission to the North Pole will result in classic cinema. Armed only with a crossbow (shamefully underused in many movies) our hero will have to battle the great white clawed titans that obstruct his Arctic quest and engage in mortal combat atop drifting icebergs.

Gina Carano with plastic forks versus bulls

Having beaten up numerous A-listers and showcased her action lead prowess in debut feature Haywire, the former MMA fighter needs to keep the movie momentum running. She would be running (and also punching, kicking, elbowing, strangling, etc) if she did the Pamplona Bull Run and spectators would get to enjoy the incredible sight of Carano grappling with rampaging toros. Then she gores the horned creatures and delivers the final death blows with plastic sporks (way more deadly than stainless steel cutlery when you consider the splinter factor) and stunned viewers will never recover having witnessed the cruellest acts of brutality ever committed to screen.

Kurt Russell with a suped-up Zippo lighter versus electric eels

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Want echoes of the MacReady flamethrower action of The Thing in the Amazon with extra high voltage zap? Remember the ludicrous contraption Kenickie used in Grease that was more overzealous blowtorch than cigarette lighter? Well, we’re going to give Russell one of those (plus an eye-patch for the Snake Plissken effect) and make him wade through tropical swamps full of predator fish that want to fry him for a B-movie magnum opus high on pyro and electric energy.

Sigourney Weaver with dagger boots versus rhinoceroses

It’s the return of Sigourney-as-Ripley, wearing deadly Rosa Klebb-inspired footwear and kicking armoured ungulates to death. With Africa’s rhinos possessed by malicious voodoo spirits, leave it to Weaver to stop the rampaging hordes in their tracks with a few well-placed roundhouse kicks.

Idris Elba with nunchaku versus the Kraken

Possibly recent televisual history’s top badass (see him as Stringer Bell in The Wire or as the titular bad cop in Luther), it’s high time that Dris got to lead his own feature-length blockbuster. This oceangoing odyssey of martial arts and sea monster slaying would not only make Elba’s big-screen reputation but mighty also rip the fabric of reality right open by virtue of the fact that I can’t conceive of anything more awesome. Elba waving nunchuks at a giant squid is the best mental image ever.

(Disclaimer: no animals will be harmed in the making of these movies. They will all be CGI, animatronic creations or played by Andy Serkis.)

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James’ previous column can be found here.

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