I've been looking forward to The Grey for some time. I'm a fan of Liam Neeson and the niche he's carved out for himself recently as a tough guy and master of violence. It suits him and the resulting films are usually quite entertaining even if they aren't of the highest quality. I, and many others, am guilty of making cracks about this film and the highly-anticipated wolf-punching, but The Grey is much more than that. When you boil down my feelings on the film, many of my reservations actually stem from my disappointment that it wasn't just a little better, because the potential was there for The Grey to be a great film instead of just "pretty good".
The film starts off introducing Neeson's character - Oddway, a hired gun for a oil company, who keeps renegade wolves from picking off their workers. Do such positions really exist? It doesn't seem like they would be necessary in the real world (but maybe, who knows?). Anyway, the nature of his position causes the viewer to take an early, and completely necessary, leap of faith. The world of the film is place where such positions would be necessary. These wolves aren't like real wolves. Sure, their aggression later in the film is given a reasonable explanation, but these monsters are meant to represent more. They're nature - in all its cruelty, indifference and persistence. More realistic-looking creatures might have improved the film a little, but when they weren't fully exposed, I think the film did a good job of making them terrifying (I'm specifically thinking of when we just see their eyes glowing in the dark).
The opening monologue by Oddway is done in the form of a letter to his absent wife. In it, he sets the scene of his harsh reality and that of the men we come to know throughout the film. It's one of the feature's strongest segments and it follows that the other Oddway-centric moments are of this high-quality. Neeson is a pro at playing haunted and coupled with his excellent "theme" in the score, it makes for some stirring cinema.
That being said, much of the film focuses on Neeson leading a rag-tag group through the Alaskan Wilderness, and those characters are far-less interesting. A plane-crash lands Oddway and his fellow survivors in their impossible predicament. The crash itself as well as the moments that precede it are tense and frightening (especially for anyone who has the same amount of turbulence-anxiety that I do). What follows is a fair amount of squabbling between Oddway and the perpetually annoying Diaz - a fellow-survivor with his own ideas on how to handle the situation. I appreciate that this conflict is supposed to mirror the alpha-male contests of the wolves, but it still put too much focus on a character I found to be obnoxious and unrealistic considering the dire situation of the group.
The other supporting players aren't as abrasive as Diaz, but I can't say that I cared a whole lot about them. Dermot Mulroney has some decent moments, as does Dallas Roberts (who has become even more of a dead-ringer for John Ritter), but these characters' roles in the plot seem more about their various deaths at the hands of the unforgiving wild. This is fine; I liked that the perils in the film were more numerous than just the ravenous wolves, but still, some of these guys do amount to just mere filler. There's also a little too much campfire chit-chat for my taste. Men sitting around talking about their lives back home seems like such a cliche and forced character development. In one case, a character talks about his young daughter and later, in the moment of his death, he sees a vision of her standing over him. Had that expository dialogue been excised entirely and the death scene remained the same, I still would have gotten what was going on.
If The Grey had just been a slightly quieter film, with more attention paid to the grim atmosphere, the beautifully shot surroundings and the unspoken perils of survival, it could have been beyond great. I don't mean to hate on Joe Carnahan, because this film was a big step forward for him and, on the overall, a success, but I can't help but feel that the potential of this story, in the hands of a more lyrical and confident director, might have been more fully-realized.
At the film's conclusion, we once more end up solely focused on Neeson's character (sorry for the spoiler, but what did you expect?). As he damns god's name while all but shaking his fists at the sky, you expect some rescue 'copter to zoom overhead, but thankfully one never arrives. Quite unfortunately, he finds himself wandering into the den of his adversaries, where he must face down the alpha wolf one-on-one. Death is inescapable for Oddway at this point, and he knows it, but he chooses to face it bravely. In these final moments, he recites a re-occurring poem in his mind: "Once more into the fray. Into the last good fight I'll ever know. Live and die on this day. Live and die on this day." Memories of his wife (who we now understand to be dead) also pop up, telling him not to be afraid (of death I'd assume) and the film cuts to black as he makes his final charge.
I feel that my description doesn't really do this ending justice because it was truly excellent and highly emotional. I thought it was the perfect way to conclude a picture of its themes. However, only after leaving the theater did I hear that there's a momentary scene after the credits. Initially, this angered me, as I thought it might cheapen the ending. I still have to see it, but some viewer descriptions have since lead me to believe that it doesn't.
The Grey has stuck with me over the past couple days in a way that many films don't. I look forward to seeing it again and hopefully soon. Though I was not entirely pleased with the film's middle, the beginning and end are certainly good enough to warrant a second viewing.