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The Grey that's being sold to you is not at all the movie Joe Carnahan has made. It's fair to expect certain things from the reunion of The A-Team director and Liam Neeson, and the promo ads that focus heavily on Neeson going mano-a-wolfo against some fearsome lupine creatures aren't entirely misleading. But The Grey has already been labeled "the Liam Neeson wolf-punching movie" when it's trying to be much more than that, a meditation on manhood and survival even against horrifyingly long odds. The wolves are there, and Neeson is indeed fighting against them, but Carnahan is clearly more interested in bringing out the film's spiritual and emotional side, which makes The Grey both deeper and more frustrating than the marketing lets on.

Every character in The Grey is a roughneck, but Neeson is somehow the roughest of them all, working as a sniper at a remote Alaskan oil field, shooting any wolves or other predators who come too close to the property. When we meet his character Ottway, he's in the midst of a dark night of the soul, speaking to the audience in a growly voiceover and eventually stepping outside with his service rifle to bid goodbye to the cruel world. He changes his mind, only to be rewarded with an astonishingly filmed and intense plane crash, stranding him and some surviving roughnecks from the oilfield on the barren tundra. As if it weren't difficult enough to survive the cold, the snow and each other, there are some fierce looking wolves nearby, and only Ottway knows how to outsmart them.

After the spiritual histrionics of the opening few minutes, The Grey then settles into a pretty basic men vs. wild rhythm, as the guys adapt to following Ottway's instructions, find reservoirs of strength within themselves, and never stop ragging on each other even when lives are at stake. Some of the characters in this not-so-happy band of brothers are more interesting than the others, but each actor brings a nice warmth to his role, be it Dermot Mulroney as the bespectacled Talget or Dallas Roberts as the good-hearted Hendrick. Carnahan's script sometimes works a little too hard to imbue The Grey with gravitas, but the best parts of the movie are usually the action scenes, whether it's the guys running across the tundra with the wolves in hot pursuit or a particularly spine-tingling sequence set high above a crevasse. The character moments aren't nearly as perfunctory as you'd expect in a normal thriller, but for a movie that considers itself a meditation on life and survival, they're not that much better either.

It's excellent to get to the end of The Grey and feel something, and there's no doubt that the especially stellar action sequences are made better because Carnahan gives us reason to care about the people in them. But when you've got the soulful, inherently compelling Liam Neeson in the lead role, you don't need nearly as much of the high drama that The Grey tosses in at the beginning and especially the end, with childhood flashbacks and even poetry letting us inside the mind of a man who could convey all of that anguish and strength in a single close-up. The Grey has exciting ambition and the highest emotional stakes imaginable, but it also feels like a bit of an overshot; if this is the welcome new direction Joe Carnahan is taking his career, here's hoping he tones it down a bit next time around.
7 / 10 stars
Rating: movie reviewed star rating out of five
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