Jan. 26, 2012 at 11:09 AM ET
Late is better than never with "The Grey," a man's-man of a genre pic that will satisfy the action audience while reminding more discerning viewers what they saw in director Joe Carnahan's decade-old breakthrough, "Narc."
However Liam Neeson's admirers feel about the disappearance of "Kinsey"-grade fare from his filmography, the film may be the best of his lowbrow outings, casting him convincingly as a broken man getting one last chance to prove his mettle. Neeson plays a sharpshooter among brutes, hired to kill wolves that threaten the oil-company employees -- "men unfit for mankind," he calls them in a nicely mood-setting voiceover -- populating a remote Alaskan outpost.
On the verge of suicide himself, Neeson must rally when a transport plane crashes, leaving him stranded with a half-dozen other men somewhere in the wilderness. Scenes of post-crash triage deftly establish him as a man of deeper resources than his peers: As he coaches a dying man through his final moments, speaking with calm authority, Neeson and the filmmakers ground the film -- promising that none of the deaths to come will be treated lightly, however pulp-flavored the script's perils may be.
Testosterone rages among the survivors, particularly from a violence-prone ex-con (Frank Grillo), but the film makes that energy serve the story instead of behaving (á la Carnahan's "Smokin' Aces") as if macho posturing were the whole point. Skirmishes over what to do intensify once it's clear that a nasty pack of wolves are pursuing the men, killing them territorially instead of for food, and Neeson argues they must leave the plane to seek shelter above the treeline.
Some viewers will find the movie's slog through snow and pines longer than necessary, but Carnahan and co-screenwriter Ian Mackenzie Jeffers make the most of the time, wringing as much meaning as they can out of every test of courage and campfire bull session. Expected man-versus-wild, man-versus-absent-God themes ring more true than usual here, though not at the expense of the promised scares: Plenty of chase scenes and gory encounters keep tension high.
Co-stars Dermot Mulroney and Dallas Roberts fill out supporting roles ably, lending character-actor color to the ensemble without threatening the pack's Alpha. Occasional grace notes (particularly with regard to sound editing) exhibit a subtlety unexpected from a filmmaker who just gave us "The A-Team," and even the tale's final standoff, while pandering to the more hotheaded members of the audience, manages to squeeze off one last shot of adrenaline without insulting more skeptical viewers.
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