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Mankind likes to think that it’s the master of any domain it comes across but the reality isn’t quite as optimistic. Sure, we can go into frigid Arctic areas, travel deep below the sea and even walk on the Moon: if we put our minds to it, nothing seems impossible. Throw humans into any of these situations wearing just the frail skins we were born with, however, and see how far we get. We may be able to use technology and innovation to take us further than anyone has gone before but, at our core, we are shockingly fragile, insignificant little things. Without the various safety nets we establish for ourselves, like clothing, shelter and weaponry, humanity is very much at the mercy of the natural world. Hunters are all-powerful when they’re armed but look an awful lot like food when they aren’t. A shady banker with a computer can bring down the world: a shady banker, in the forest, with no protection, will get eaten by a bear…that’s just the way the world works.

Writer-director Joe Carnahan’s The Grey (2011) (an adaptation of Ian Mackenzie Jeffer’s short story, “Ghost Walker”), is yet another examination of “man vs. nature,” one of those time-honored tales where disparate and diverse personalities must come together in order to survive a greater threat. In the process, the characters will do lots of surviving, lots of dying and lots of personal discovery. While this type of story is certainly nothing new (hell, Jack London may have invented this subgenre all the way back in the 1900s), The Grey ends up being an extraordinarily powerful film, anchored by a quietly explosive performance from Liam Neeson and a strong, viscerally violent atmosphere. While popular jokes at the time may have cast The Grey as nothing more than “Liam Neeson punching wolves,” the film is a helluva lot more than that. In fact, it may just be the best survival-horror film since Marshall’s classic The Descent (2006).

We’re immediately dropped into the desolate, snow and wind-blasted wilderness of Alaska, where we meet Ottway (Liam Neeson), our guide through this particular wasteland. Ottway is a master outdoors-man and responsible for protecting the rugged members of an oil-rigging crew from the hungry wolves that endlessly patrol the icy wastes. Ottway is also a hopelessly damaged individual, suffering from some sort of unnamed loss (we get lots and lots of flashbacks) that drives him perilously close to eating a bullet. He doesn’t, however, and boards a plane with the rest of the crew, including Diaz (Frank Grillo), Flannery (Joe Anderson), Talget (Dermot Mulroney), Henrick (Dallas Roberts) and Burke (Nonso Anozie). When the weather gets worse, the plane freezes over and ends up crashing in a spectacular, absolutely thrilling sequence (talk about edge of your seat…literally): the lucky ones are killed in the crash. The unlucky ones, led by Ottway, must now survive in the harsh elements with only the clothes on their backs and a few canisters of pilfered airplane fuel to start fires. They need to get back to civilization but there are plenty of eyes watching from the woods…hungry eyes.

As Ottway does his damnedest to keep the survivors alive, he finds himself butting heads with the worst aspects of humanity, including greed, fear and the selfish desire to survive at the cost of everyone else. In particular, Ottway finds himself at odds with Diaz: while the vicious wolves circle in the darkness, Diaz and Ottway circle each other in the light, sniffing for weakness and constantly struggling for domination. Even as Ottway discusses the need to find and slay the alpha male wolf, the struggle for alpha dominance within the survivors threatens to tear them all asunder. Will Ottway be able to overcome his own emotional issues in order to fulfill his duties as group protector? Will the men learn to work together, against all odds, or will they continue to be picked off, one by one, until only their bones remain to remind of their existence? In order to survive, the men will not only need to overcome the wolves: they will need to become the wolves.

The Grey is, first and foremost, a glorious return to the kind of big-screen adventure-survival epics that used to be de rigueur at the box office back in the ’70s. In many ways, the film isn’t such a huge departure from films like Deliverance (1972), Jaws (1975) or Sorcerer (1977) but a much closer parallel would be the aforementioned one with The Descent. In many ways, The Grey is definitely a survival-horror film: the wolves are introduced in a way that establishes them as monsters (the glowing eyes and frightening baying) and the alpha male wolf is established in a way that sets him up as the “chief bad guy” (the scene where Diaz tosses the decapitated wolves’ head into the darkness, only to be met by the angry response call from the alpha male, isn’t much different from any scene where an evil leader reacts in anger to the death of a subordinate at the hands of the heroes). In this way, the wolves are very similar to something like Peter Jackson’s orcs or Marshall’s cave dwellers and serve a similar function in the film.

An action-adventure film lives or dies by its action sequences and, in this regard, The Grey is a complete stunner. From the initial plane crash to the heart-in-mouth scene where the survivors rappel down a craggy mountain-side to the final confrontation with the alpha wolf, The Grey is one incredibly intense scene after another. Carnahan masterfully coils and uncoils the tension, building up quiet, personal dialogue scenes into explosive action beats, prompting me to (literally) jump out of my seat on at least a half-dozen occasions. One of the scenes, which begins as a confrontation between Diaz and Ottway but ends as a confrontation between Diaz and a wolf, is so perfectly executed that it’s almost a textbook example of how to set-up and execute such a moment. I’ve never been a huge fan of Carnahan’s other films (I positively abhor the empty-headed Smokin’ Aces (2006)) but he displays an absolutely deft touch on The Grey that has me eagerly anticipating his next project.

The film almost always looks and sounds great (the sound design is particularly strong) but I wasn’t fond of cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi’s (who also shot the Oscar-winning Silver Linings Playbook (2012)) frequent over-reliance on blown-out visuals. His landscape cinematography was so beautiful that it was frustrating to have such an obvious visual aesthetic for the more intimate scenes: I get that it’s a cold, white, desolate place…no need to rub my nose in it. Additionally, in the minor quibble department, I felt that Ottway’s frequent flashbacks/dream sequences wore out their welcome pretty early into the film and frequently killed the forward momentum. The sequences did a little to help establish Ottway’s character, although this type of character development seems particularly heavy-handed and unnecessary.

Ultimately, however, no discussion of The Grey can be complete without singling out Liam Neeson for some special recognition. Although the rest of the cast is solid (Dermot Mulroney is particularly good as Talget), this is definitely Neeson’s film. Over the last few years, Neeson has been gradually morphing into an action star, not too far removed from what Bronson and Eastwood were doing in the ’80s and ’90s. In fact, it’s pretty easy to imagine someone like Bronson, Eastwood or Lee Marvin playing the part of Ottway: it’s a quiet, brooding role that requires not only plenty of ass-kicking but also some degree of wounded vulnerability. Ottway may be a man of action but he’s still just a man: Neeson shows us the confusion, fear and conflict beneath his stoic visage, without doing anything to denigrate his inherent heroism. Ottway is not some unrealistically pure “white knight”: he’s just as fucked up as everyone else, yet manages to work through his issues to do what needs to be done. It’s a truly multi-faceted performance made all the more impressive by how little (relatively speaking) Neeson says. Those flinty eyes tell a helluva story, however, and Carnahan/Takayanagi take full advantage of this with plenty of intense closeups, ala Eastwood and his similarly flinty orbs.

While The Grey could, perhaps, be considered the ultimate “guy movie,” (the only women in the film appear in flashback/dream sequences, which is probably rather telling) I think that there’s a lot more bubbling beneath the surface than mindless chest-beating and machismo. This is definitely an action film, through and through, and packed with enough hardcore, visceral violence to please even the most discerning gorehound (the film doesn’t skimp on the “wolves eating people” visuals and there’s one bit involving half of a guy that’s pretty difficult to watch). Along with action and violence, however, there are some surprisingly deep conversations about the nature of faith and there’s one particularly moving scene where Ottway helps a dying man pass on peacefully. They’re rare moments of beauty and serenity in an otherwise unforgiving, harsh landscape but they make the film an overall richer experience.

Ultimately, I found myself quite taken with The Grey: perhaps future viewings will help push it into the neo-classic status of films like The Descent but, for the time being, it simply stands as an extraordinary, ridiculously exciting adventure film. That being said, the film also features one of the most perfect final scenes I’ve ever seen (ruined only so slightly by an unnecessary post-credits tag), a scene that manages to be simultaneously regal, sad and ruthlessly badass. It’s a scene that stops right before it begins, leaving the viewer’s brain to fill in the gap. It’s a wonderful, powerful, amazingly cinematic moment: it’s what movies are all about (in my non-humble opinion) and any modern film should be proud to feature anything close to it. If the finale doesn’t find you on your feet, fist thrust heroically into the air…well, let’s just say that there may not be any hope for you, after all. The Grey is vicious, vital, bloody filmmaking at its very best: you’d be wise to give it a look sometime.