Liam Neeson has become the most unlikely of action stars, so entrenched is he in these roles it is hard to remember him doing anything else. His new project, The Grey, both embraces this as well as mixing new things into his formula. Blend together his stern hard-man act, the Uruguayan Rugby team crashing in the Andes in Alive and the tropes of man versus monster horror films (Jaws). The result of this recipe is the most interesting project the intense Irish actor has been involved with since Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Five Minutes of Heaven in 2009. Based on the novel Ghost Walker by Ian Mackenzie Jeffers, The Grey marks an upwards spike in director Joe Carnahan’s career trajectory after his misjudged A-team remake.

Neeson plays a man who has lost purpose in life; he now focuses on his job as a security guard protecting his colleagues against the wolves that stalk his workplace. This job finishes in the early minutes of the 117 minute running time and the crew is headed back to Anchorage, before the flight gets too far their plane smashes into the white sprawl. The sound design and effects used in this scene are overwhelming and disturbing in all the right ways, it’s the best crash scene since JJ Abrams Super 8, maybe better. Many die and a few survive, one lives long enough to die in front of his friends in the first of many unforgiving scenes. We follow these 7 survivors as they try to evade the wolves who are hunting them down. The Grey is as sparsely plotted as any contemporary star vehicle can be without courting art-house pretensions.

There is little else to populate Joe Carnahan’s film. Characters are established to varying degrees, making their arc significant, two of which come to tragic conclusions. Others are merely to illustrate what can go wrong in the immortal clash between man and Mother Nature, despite the best intentions these characters could be built up more. Underwritten characters with swift shelf shelves may occupy the script by Carnahan and Mackenzie Jeffers; nevertheless we still become attached to these characters thanks to mutual trauma.

After the dust of the crash has settled, heads have been counted and gathered equipment to move out to safety, after all nobody will be in a rush to save these thieves, murderers and others unfit for mainstream society, Ottway’s (Neeson’s) words. As soon as they have settled down for the night, the horror credentials reveal themselves. This might not stretch further beyond wolves jumping out of the deep dark of night every now and again, yet these occurrences are never more than wholly successful. The jump scare is something with little value in modern genre cinema, it is used here as something which many others fail to achieve. This is the wolves’ territory, they reveal themselves only when it is necessary, the efficiency of the pack never allows you to be anything other than tentative in the viewing experience, and it is terrifying.

This second excellent scene is when reality sets in for the survivors, 10 plus wolves reveal themselves and stare down Neeson and company. You don’t see their bodies or their snarls; all you see is there eyes. That simple use of colour and shot framing is creepy and sets the tone up for the film. The CGI on the wolves is humble, the sound design and effects on the other hand are transcendent.

After another visceral showdown between man and wolf in the woods, the tone of the film shifts significantly the wolves become an afterthought and the script mutates into something with much more dialogue driven with a cynical view of faith, humanity and society. Through the emotional investment of sharing the terror of being hunted down by wolves, the barriers come down and the characters reveal more depth in contrast to the archetypes they started off as. The performances of Dallas Roberts, Frank Grillo and Dermot Mulroney are all emotionally riveting.

The issue with the second half is that there is an axe to grind, which is fine. If anybody deserves to be that cynical it’s these people. However for the threat to dissolve while these contrarily cynical and nostalgic opinions and thoughts are aired, the cost is too expensive. It may close with the return of that ruthlessness only to end, promptly, which may be anti-climactic; realistically it could’ve ended no other way. An open end trumps a closed one 10 times out of 10.

The second half may neglect the brutal realism that made the first half difficult to watch for something more broadly cinematic, it is still a compelling and chilling tale of survival. The Grey is about as good as Neeson has ever been and it is the first great film of 2012.

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