The Grey is a good movie; the film’s lone problem, however, is that it wants to be a great one.  At its core, this is the kind of Jack London-lite delight that Hollywood used to churn out at a regular basis.  Back in 1946, this “man vs. nature” tale would have starred one of two Roberts (Mitchum or Ryan), but if that’s too far back, maybe you’ll recall Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin matching wits against each other and a bloodthirsty Kodiak bear in Lee Tamahori and David Mamet’s splendid 1997 thriller The Edge.

Like those films, The Grey works best pursuing its pulpier aims.  A group of oil drillers get stranded in the Alaskan wilderness, and their fight for survival involves weathering the elements as well as the vicious wolfpack never more than a few paces behind them.  That’s a movie, with scaffolding hardy enough to support all sorts of great, non-verbal subtext—the nature of courage, how death has the power to sweeten life, pick your poison.

But writer/director Joe Carnahan (of Narc and—more regrettably—The A-Team fame) can’t leave well enough alone; he keeps artlessly highlighting the subtext, worried that audiences might overlook his film’s underlying resonance.  Liam Neeson, who is really quite good as Ottway, the riggers’ security officer—and de facto wilderness leader—has to finesse Carnahan’s most cumbersome embellishments.  One look at his tortured visage and propensity for sudden violence, and you sense deep chasms of pain within Ottway.  You don’t need narration that alludes to that pain (missing wife, blah, blah, blah), and you certainly don’t need the “How to Craft a Depressed Protagonist 101” clinic that occurs when Carnahan has Neeson put a gun in his mouth and contemplate suicide.  That cliché passed its expiration date long before Mel Gibson made it de rigueur in Lethal Weapon, and it’s no fresher in The Grey.

Not that the rest of the cast fares much better—whenever we get some downtime, the actors speak in musty platitudes about life and death that read like bargain-rate Cormac McCarthy.  These aren’t people; they’re stock types from Central Casting.  Dallas Roberts is the voice of reason.  Joe Anderson is the twitchy scaredy-cat.  Dermot Mulroney is the family man—you know the drill.  The characters exist to a) die horribly and b) make explicit Carnahan’s existential themes, with only Frank Grillo’s Diaz developing anything resembling complex shadings.  I first saw Grillo in last year’s Warrior (he played Joel Edgerton’s coach) and found him so authentic and unshowy that I assumed the filmmakers had just hired a real MMA trainer.  Grillo brings that same lived-in naturalism to his Grey performance as a braggart humbled by this life-or-death struggle, and his work makes you forgot how trite his dialogue is.

It’s as if Carnahan doubted his ability to tell this story through raw physicality, and he needn’t have worried.  Carnahan the director gives the action a ruthless professionalism.  We know the characters; we’re pretty sure we know how it all ends (hint: not well); but the way we reach these forgone conclusions is consistently involving.  Working with the great cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi, Carnahan delivers the same grainy, shot-from-the-hip aesthetic that made Narc so gripping.  The film’s plane crash has a claustrophobic, staccato jolt that bests Robert Zemeckis’ similarly staged chaos in Cast Away, and he tops that with an extended setpiece that finds the heroes braving a dizzying fall to reach the (relative) safety of the treeline below.  Even The Grey‘s frequent (and bloody) wolf attacks never grow stale because Carnahan keeps playing with their rhythms—sometimes we get some quiet character work to decompress, sometimes the attacks come one after another, and the end result is perpetual, heightened unease.

Ironically, Carnahan achieves greatness only when he abandons the screenwriting clichés and submits to pure cinema.  In the immediate aftermath of the plane crash, we watch as Neeson helps calm a mortally wounded passenger through his last few breaths of life.  There are no deathbed theatrics or purple prose, just Neeson’s psychic weight and a near-unendurable sadness.  This foreboding returns for the climax, which finds Neeson begging God for salvation—only to find it in the last place he expected.  In both these instances, the artifice melts away, and we see what could have been.

Had The Grey no overt ambitions other than to relay a ripping adventure yarn, I think it would have organically discovered something that could rank with The Edge or White Fang or The Call of the Wild.  Joe Carnahan’s visceral chops are enough; pity his insistence on forcing The Grey‘s worth.  The result is a small tragedy, but a tragedy just the same: a three-star movie that wants to be a four-star one.

Universal’s Blu-ray offers a visually extreme representation of The Grey; the film has a gritty patina, filled with high-contrast lighting and heavy grain.  After seeing The Grey projected digitally, I can say with certainty (and Carnahan confirms as much on the commentary track) that the worn look is part of Takayanagi’s visceral lensings.  The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio sound, however, is clear and nuanced and roaringly powerful during the many action scenes.

Supplements are sparse but worthwhile.  We get twenty-plus minutes of deleted scenes and a terrific commentary with Carnahan and editors Roger Barton & Jason Hellman.  Carnahan claims that he and his editors are drinking while recording the track; the three men are unflinchingly honest talking about the film’s history, from the brutal temperatures the cast endured on-location to the problems Carnahan encountered with some of his crew members (executive producer Bill Johnson and an A-Team crane operator get both barrels).

The set also has DVD and UV digital copies.

As a Jack London-inspired adventure story, The Grey is relentlessly suspenseful.  When it switches gears to become a “serious drama,” it loses its way somewhat, but those faults never overwhelm the good stuff.  A solid double play for Joe Carnahan, and a home run for star Liam Neeson.

The Grey streets on May 15th.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.

Culture Movie Review: Brutal, Exciting THE GREY Has Trouble Meeting Lofty Ambitions