Friday, 20 January 2012

THE GREY - Liam Neeson is always worth watching, but this man against nature thriller is the worst sort of by-the-numbers moviemaking. It's by the numbers with pretensions to be better than it is. That, frankly, sucks a smegma-encrusted appendage.

The Grey (2012) dir. Joe Carnahan
Starring: Liam Neeson, Frank Grillo and Dermot Mulroney


Review By Greg Klymkiw

The pitch: Liam Neeson works for an Arctic drilling rig as a sharpshooter who keeps wolves away from the employees. When the winter season sets in big time, most of the employees and residents, board a plane and head to southerly destinations. When the plane crashes smack dab in the middle of a wolf pack's hunting grounds and very near their den, the handful of survivors must battle the elements and the wolves. The coterie of macho wolf-bait is the usual assortment of miscreants - leading to all manner of personality conflicts amidst the very real threat of being devoured and/or freezing to death.

Sounds okay on paper, yes? Well, if the movie had risen beyond the most rudimentary competence, "okay" might well have been the operative word in describing the relative worth of The Grey. Alas, the tagline could just as well be: "A new film from the director of The A-Team, Smokin' Aces and (lest we forget, though we rather would) Narc".

This, I assure you, is not a ringing endorsement.

Carnahan perpetrates one of the biggest crimes against a genre picture like this - he takes certain elements seriously enough that he bogs down the visceral forward thrust with all manner of incompetently written longueurs. The movie opens with dreadful, cut-rate narration delivered by Liam Neeson that spells out what the setting is, how horrible it is to live there and how useless to civilization all its inhabitants are. These voiceovers, as it turns out, are derived from a letter Neeson is writing to his ex-wife that he never plans to send and whom he knows will never take him back.

So, why bother with this dull conceit? Well, it allows a pedestrian talent at best, like co-writer and director Carnahan, to generate material he bone-headedly thinks will lift the material out of the muck it should stay in to be even remotely entertaining. Not only do we get narration, but it eventually morphs into a series of dull, on-the-nose flashbacks with Neeson and his wifey. He stares at her lovingly while she whispers sweet nothings of encouragement - some actual, some imagined. They always occur (surprise-surprise) at moments when Neeson needs them the most.

There's a hint that Neeson's character feels spiritually connected to the wolves, but only a hint, mind you. Lord knows, we wouldn't want to get too cerebral. A missed opportunity in the hands of any other director, but in Carnahan's lumpy mittens, it's just something he'd have screwed up.

There are the usual squabbles twixt the men, but all these serve to do is slow down the action to the pace of a snail - mostly because the endless conversation scenes involving a group of supposedly diverse characters who ultimately have little to distinguish themselves, save for the fact that they are not Liam Neeson's character.

We do get the occasional wolf attacks, but these are directed with all the style and verve of an apprentice butcher raising his sledgehammer tentatively over the skull of a cow before letting it crash down upon the bovine cranium. They're almost always in closeup and utilize the fashionable, but lazy herky jerky shots and Attention Deficit Disorder quick cutting.

Worse yet, we seldom get real wolves, but rather fake ones generated with makeup and animatronic effects. I'm grateful they're not rendered digitally, but that's the best I can say for them. They all look like glorified puppets and in the night exteriors, some of the cheesiest digital effects are employed in order to make the wolves' eyes glow. Ugh.

Didn't Carnahan and his team ever hear of animal trainers?

The British Columbia locations allow for plenty of spectacular scenery, but they, like the rest of the film, are shot with competence and even then, not always even that.

More annoying than anything, it's yet another film with dubious research that presents a stereotypical portrait of wolves. Didn't Farley Mowat's great book and Carroll Ballard's fine film adaptation Never Cry Wolf put all that nonsense to rest a long time ago? (I also happen to live in an area surrounded by wolves, so perhaps I carry a personal bias I can't get over.

Liam Neeson, as per usual, is worth watching, but why go to the trouble of shooting all this dross when it might have been easier to get him to crack open the telephone book and just read the listings to us? The rest of the cast ooze a certain competence, but their characters are thinly sketched so they barely register (save for one nasty, sterotypically contrary fellow).

The absolute nadir of this lame thriller is its seemingly ambiguous ending. This, along with all the idiotic flashbacks and poorly written yap-fests contribute unsuccessfully to Carnahan wishing to rise above his plodding yawn-inducer and convince us that he's a thinking man and that his movie is not just another straight to video thriller that's inexplicably getting a theatrical release.

A thriller can be many things, but to be boring is inexcusable.

I think I'll read some Jack London or watch Carroll Ballard's Never Cry Wolf to cleanse my palate of the foul taste Carnahan put there.

How about you?

"The Grey" is in theatrical release via E-One starting January 27.