One cannot help but wonder what the pitch meeting for writer/director Joe Carnahan’s new action flick “The Grey” sounded like.
Carnahan: “Liam Neeson versus a pack of wolves.”
Producers: “That’s all we need to know. You’re going to Hollywood.”
Regardless of the simplicity of said synopsis (much less the similarities of pitch meetings to “American Idol” auditions, apparently), the fact that Carnahan got a green light is excellent news for moviegoers as “The Grey” is a no-holds-barred, testosterone-fueled thrill ride. Surprisingly, it is also emotionally resonant and theoretically profound.
“The Grey,” which is now playing at movie theaters throughout the Valley, begins at an oil refinery in Alaska. Neeson plays John Ottway, a man who has been hired by the refinery to keep bears, canines and other wild beasts from attacking the oil workers, who endure grueling 5-week shifts 24/7 before having about 2 weeks off for vacation.
One group of men heading back home, including John, encounter a brutal storm, causing the plane to crash in the Alaskan tundra. All on board are killed except for eight survivors who – battling mortal injuries, biting cold and ravenous hunger – are relentlessly hunted and pursued by a vicious pack of rogue wolves.
It probably goes without saying that “The Grey” quickly turns into an exercise of the classic nursery rhyme “Ten Little Indians.” In other words, one by one, the survivors get eaten alive by the wolves. However, each one of them refuses to go down without a fight, making for a series of exceptionally entertaining exits.
And as predictable as it might be, “The Grey” still finds a way to ratchet up the suspense. There is no better example of this than when a survivor played by Dermot Mulroney attempts to shimmy across a rope from a cliff into the ominous great beyond. The outcome is inevitable, of course, but the tense manner in which Carnahan sets up the scene salvages the sheer amusement of it all.
Yet, “The Grey” is about much more than just a bunch of wolves tearing these men limb from limb. First are foremost, this is a story about the struggle to survive amidst some spectacularly dire circumstances. It is in that struggle that we not only empathize with these doomed characters but also learn a thing or two about human existence from them.
After all, coming face-to-face with a wolf that is desperate to maintain his territory is essentially staring death straight in the eye. Such moments (and, remember, we have got eight of them here) afford us a glimpse of life that is as close to enlightenment as possible. On the other hand, “The Grey” is also just a whole lot of manly fun.
“The Grey” (R – 117 minutes) is now playing at movie theaters throughout the Valley. Visit FirstLook.com for specific showtimes and locations.