**½/**** Image A Sound A+ Extras C+
starring Liam Neeson, Frank Grillo, Dermot Mulroney, James Badge Dale
screenplay by Joe Carnahan & Ian Mackenzie Jeffers, based on Jeffers's short story "Ghost Walker"
directed by Joe Carnahan
by Angelo Muredda The teaser for Joe Carnahan's The Grey closes with Liam Neeson MacGyver-ing a wolf-punching power glove out of mini-liquor bottles. It's a great hook, and easily the best trailer of the year. It's also kind of a lie. To be fair, Carnahan's latest--after the dreadful one-two (wolfless) punch of Smokin' Aces and The A-Team--is a career-saving return to form, although Narc was hardly epic stuff. Adapted from a short story by Ian Mackenzie Jeffers, The Grey ambitiously aspires to be a Jack London-esque exploration of ruffians fighting for their lives against an unmoved wilderness; tonally, it sits somewhere between the gritty naturalism of "To Build a Fire" and the bros-only philosophical seminar of The Sea-Wolf. Carnahan brings an admirable seriousness to this task and invests his band of rogues with some nice human touches, but there's a dopiness to this material that doesn't always pass muster. Watching The Grey's arctic powwows between protagonist Ottway (Neeson) and his sad burly men, I was most reminded not of endangered-man potboilers but of The Breakfast Club, which similarly gathers a group of rejects around the high-school equivalent of a makeshift fire for some prime bonding. Slogging through these men's tales of woe isn't exactly detention, but eventually it does start to feel like homework.
This isn't to say that the wolf-punching bonanza the teaser promises is objectively better than the male weepie Carnahan actually turned out. There's plenty of room for a competently-made masculine alternative to The Help, and you could do worse than The Grey. While Ottway's nigh-endless opening monologue about his absent spouse has virtually no emotional pull apart from what it draws from the actor's real-life tragedy, there's legitimate power in Carnahan's depiction of overconfident lugs reduced by their environment to puppy-dog sniffles. The film hits its stride early on with the plane-crash that strands these men--a handful of oil-drillers and one certified beast-hunter (guess who)--in arctic wolf country. The crash is viscerally staged, a model of chilling sound design, sharp editing, and impactful lensing. DP Masanobu Takayanagi creates unbearable tension in the lead-up, restlessly alternating the vulnerable faces of co-stars Dallas Roberts, Frank Grillo, and Dermot Mulroney (all unrecognizable beneath their beards) as they pretend to be unfazed by a suspiciously long patch of turbulence. Carnahan is perceptive about these slippages between performative dude courage and primal fear, particularly just-following the crash, where the preternaturally calm Ottway becomes a soothing dad to the hysterical survivors, simply because he's the first to speak.
Carnahan maintains this tension, as well as this insight into pack mentality, for the better part of the movie, especially in the early stretch where the men get on the move, lest they be devoured by a territorial pack of wolves that turns out to be stationed all around them. Scary as this encroaching threat of night raids may be, however, the wolves themselves are a problem once we get a look at them. Seen from a distance or as glowing-eyed demons in the dark, they're a shoddy CG effect rather than an elemental force; up close, all we get are clunky animatronics and incoherent cutting. It's unsurprising that the film's credits boast three separate editors: Whoever expertly handled the crash seems to have gone down with the plane.
Then there's that small matter of the men's penchant for teary-eyed confessionals. Mileage varies. Mulroney is affecting as a bespectacled dad who fixates on the memory of his daughter to get him through any number of wilderness catastrophes. Grillo is pretty good, too, though the only reason his character starts off as a lower-class (and ethnically Other) competitor to Ottway's alpha status is so he can tearfully surrender to him later--the wiry Latino son finally folded under his surrogate dad's strong Irish arm. Neeson's role is the trickiest, and it's a testament to his towering screen presence of late that he survives it. On the one hand, Ottway's a windbag, prone to reciting his late poet dad's masterwork, which turns out to be the "Once more into the breach" line from Henry V with "fray" in place of "breach"--intertextuality at its most profound. But as the quieter, more methodical Ottway who snake-charms the other men into being his betas, he's the heart of a movie that's far more interested in soul-searching than in wolf-punching.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers Universal brings The Grey to Blu-ray in a highly-filmic 2.40:1, 1080p transfer. There's an abundance of grain, particularly in documentary-styled early scenes that were shot, like the bulk of the film, in Super35. Because Super35 is typically a 3-perf format, it had to be optically converted to 4-perf for projection in the pre-digital era and thus became known--some say infamous--for the grainy images it yielded. But since this intermediary step is no longer required, I have to assume the makers of The Grey amplified the grain digitally. (Unless they really did convince their backers to let them process some of the footage photochemically.) Nevertheless, it looks extremely organic, as well as apropos, and other aspects of the presentation--fine detail, dynamic range--are exemplary, if lacking HiDef gloss. And while I missed The Grey in cinemas, I can attest that the CG wolves are relatively persuasive at home. Preserved in a robust, D-BOX-enhanced 5.1 DTS-HD MA track, the film's memorable soundmix takes a slightly more subjective approach than Masanobu Takayanagi's cinematography, with the snarling wolves packing about as much low end as the plane crash. Still, there's a complexity to it all (the aforementioned plane crash is a master class in sound design) that's not only honoured by the combination of discrete audio and lossless compression but also, perhaps, dependent on it.
Director Joe Carnahan and editors Roger Barton and Jason Hellmann are in good spirits (and apparently imbibing spirits) in a listenable feature-length commentary that gingerly broaches the subject of the project's personal resonance with Liam Neeson while unsurprisingly delving with gusto into things like changes made to the film in the cutting room. Although Carnahan refuses to name the actor he admits to not getting along with, he impolitically ranks certain members of The Grey's production team above ones he had on The A-Team. Also find on this disc a 22-minute batch of "Deleted Scenes" (HD) best summarized as more bonding plus suffering; a bit where our heroes struggle to build a fire using a cheap lighter and a glove is an almost painfully realistic suspense sequence but probably would've ground the movie to a halt in context. Additional face-time with the picture's first few casualties mostly confirms their expendability. Provided your wifi's turned on, dynamic content loads up automatically on startup of this combo-pack, which comes with a DVD copy of The Grey and a download link for the Ultraviolet digital version.