The most interesting thing about The Grey is that it's not actually about Liam Neeson vs. a pack of wolves (advantage: Neeson). It's really Liam Neeson vs. man's most dangerous enemy ... (drumroll please) HIMSELF. Unfortunately, this is also The Grey's biggest problem, it's overly introspective right when you're pulling for some wolf tooth on man flesh action. Also, and not for nothing, Liam Neeson's character, "John," isn't all that interesting - which makes the needless introspection all the more painful. It's almost as if director Joe Carnahan figured "You know what, this here action movie is gonna have some soul. It's gonna have some emotions!" only this left it feeling completely out of step with the material. Remember this opening monologue from SNL where Phil Hartman declared he was going to finally be himself only to have Steve Martin say "I wouldn't do that if I were you, Phil."? Yeah, that's The Grey, trying too hard to be something it never needed to be in the first place.
But back to the action. Liam "John" Neeson is a wolf exterminator for an oil company in The Arctic. His job is to watch the company's workers while they are out and exposed to the elements. He carries a rifle and a steady-handed aim. If you are a wolf, and attempting to eat a human, he will definitely ruin your whole day. This pattern follows the normal Neeson cinematic release method of winter, be it ruining a kidnapper's (Taken) or a fake wife's (Unknown) day. If you step to Neeson, he'll own you, whether you be on two or four legs. He makes no distinction. His only goal is the ruin of your day.
Now, even that right there is enough for a legitimate story, but there's more. There's so much (100 minutes) more. The company work gang and John head out to another (even more remote) part of The Arctic (that's realistic, there's a lot of snowy land up there) only to have their plane run into issues, Castaway style. The fellas are then forced to fend for themselves in the cold desolate north, where grey pelted and whited fanged beasts roam free, unencumbered with a fear of modern man. These wolves will stop at nothing, I repeat nothing, if you're near their den. Hopefully you're not.
John must muster the motley crew to mount either an adequate defense or escape. The priorities of the group change based on the terrain, and John knows the guys are in deep trouble vs. a pack of hungry and den-defending wolves. Most of the action comes in the manner of a continual chase scene from here on out, and it's also a race against time due to the blistering cold. Will the gentleman escape with their lives? Can John effectively help the guys who don't know how wolves operate? All that and more are answered in The Grey, three-fifths of a solid film.
Still, the issues mentioned in the opening paragraph loom, and we owe it to ourselves to talk about them. During the nearly two-hour running time of the film John has, and there's not a better way to describe it, these random semi-coherent flashbacks to a past relationship. Now, it's not the method that spells doom, as flashbacks are often used effectively to help us relate to onscreen action. No, it's the execution that's largely shoddy. It's all presented in blur-o-vision, without much context, until eventually you're left asking "Well, WHO is this person that's so important that she should take us away from imminent wolf inflicted death??" Only they keep going back to the well on it. Add in an extremely random and poorly conceived opening scene involving John and what seems to be a case of chronic depression and you've got around 25 minutes of material that the film would have benefited from losing entirely. It's not that action films can't have feelings, and the writer/director here has delivered solid entertainment in prior works such as The A-Team and Smokin' Aces. It was just a strange choice to make John his own worst enemy, given an enemy was right there in front of him, snarling and gnashing. Cribbing the vibrant and vital wolfy energy which was right there for the taking was a definite miss, but that's precisely what occurs here, and it makes The Grey much less than it could have been. A shame, that.
Regardless, and despite all my kvetching, The Grey is worth a watch if only for being different. There are moments of real artistic beauty throughout, and we'll likely not see this "thoughtful" style of man vs. the elements film again anytime soon. The Grey has 90 strong minutes, which is more than you can say for some films (hi, Iron Lady!). Liam Neeson continues his run as our favorite rugged action star, and the wolves acquit themselves well throughout. You could do worse, and the fact that The Grey could have been better in certain parts is no reason to dismiss it entirely. Sometimes you've just got to take what January offers you with a toothy grin.