How wonderfully unpredictable the movies can be. Who would have thought that, at nearly 60, Liam Neeson would be one of the top action stars around? It's the same, counterintuitive formula that made Michael Keaton a good Batman and the Rock a believable Tooth Fairy.
But here he is again. After the thrillers "Taken" and "Unknown," Neeson, that burly Irishman of such rock-'em, sock 'em films as "Kinsey" and "Schindler's List," is back in his new genre of choice, looking quite at home punching a wolf.
In "The Grey," Neeson plays John Ottway, a grizzled veteran of remote oil refineries, where his specialty is shooting, by sniper rifle, wild animals that attack rig workers. What Neeson has is a resilient weariness with hard Irish eyes that come alive when challenged, and boyishly soften around women.
But Ottway has tired of his rough life, an outcast — for undetermined reasons — from the woman he loves (Anne Openshaw), whom he recalls frequently in white visions of pillow-talk purity. The film, directed by Joe Carnahan ("The A-Team," ''Narc"), opens with Ottway's lost musings: "I've stopped doing this world any good."
Outside the mean-spirited revelry of his fellow roughneck workers, he prepares to kill himself, only to be called back to the world by the howl of a wolf — something not unlike Jack London's "call of the wild."
En route to vacation in Anchorage, the workers — a rough crew of facial hair and flannel — pile into an airplane that hits a storm, crashes violently and leaves just seven alive in the middle of the snowy Alaskan tundra. Call it "Lost: The Winter Edition."
Ottway, well versed in both survival and death, takes charge. Their predicament, deathly cold and with little hope of rescue, becomes considerably worse when a pack of wolves announce themselves by their eerie, glowing eyes on the dark fringes of their campfire.
From there, "The Grey" (By AP style, it should be called "The Gray" with the more Americanized usage, but what's a vowel when wolves are lurking?) is a survivalist thriller where the ever-dwindling band of survivors claw for safety, away from the relentless pursuit of the wolves.
The group includes the sensitive Henrick (Dallas Roberts) and the conscientious, religious father Talget (a bearded, bespectacled and nearly unrecognizable Dermot Mulroney). But easily the most notable among them is Diaz (Frank Grillo, memorable in a small role in last year's "Warrior"), a former convict who initially opposes Ottway's leadership.
Carnahan lays the alpha dog stuff on heavily, but there's real chemistry in the friction between Ottway and Diaz. In manly, fireside chats, they parse out existential ideas, talking God in a wintery void, faced with the uncompassionate brutality of nature.
But "The Grey" is not "Jaws" and it's certainly not "Moby-Dick." In the script by Carnahan and Ian Mackenzie Jeffers, adapted from Jeffers' short story "Ghost Walker," the philosophical subtext is forced and obvious. At one point, God is shouted out at in the sky.
Visceral action has generally been Carnahan's specialty, ranging from the brainless "Smokin' Aces" to the good, gritty genre film "Narc." That talent is here, too, particularly in his sure handling of the violent plane crash. The wolves, a combination of animatronics, trained animals and CGI, are also impressively real.
With cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi, Carnahan drains the color of the raw British Columbia landscapes, standing in ably for Alaskan wilderness. But when the filmmakers try to let the outside world into the film — in conversation and flashback memories — all they can manage are cliché images that sap the movie of depth, and keep it lost in the woods.
"The Grey," which ambles toward an unconventional ending, deserves credit for looking for gravity in genre tropes. But, ultimately, the film feels less like a genuine existential thriller than a movie aping the conventions of one.
The Open Road Films release is rated R for violence, disturbing content including bloody images, and for pervasive language. Running time: 117 minutes.