A decade ago Joe Carnahan was considered one of the Hollywood’s most promising film-makers. The high-praise following the release of Narc – an uncompromising look at two under-cover Detroit cops who get tangled up in the corruption of the city’s drugs underworld – suggested he was set for big things. But then, as often happens, crisis hit. This time in the form of Mission Impossible III…
Carnahan had signed up to direct the Tom Cruise spy thriller but was forced to quit the production after 15 months due to that wonderful catch-all term “creative differences”. Following MI:III, he settled with more audience-friendly fare like Smokin’ Aces and The A-Team, both of which saw him take screenwriting credits too. Deep down though you hoped he would still have the pull to follow-up Narc with the more personal films that he wanted to make.
Which brings us to The Grey. Based on Ian MacKenzie Jeffers’ short story Ghost Walker, it tells the story of a team of oil drillers who are on a plane which crashes in the bleak environs of Alaska. The small band of survivors must battle the elements and a pack of deadly wolves who see them as intruders. And of course, as with any disaster movie, the unknown entity is often the most unpredictable – EACH OTHER.
The Grey sees Carnahan re-teaming with A-team producers Tony and Ridley Scott, and that movie’s cigar-chewing Hannibal, our very own Liam Neeson. Neeson’s re-invention as an action-star is fascinating. While he dazzled us all with his light-sabre duels against Darth Maul in 1999’s Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace and as Ra’s al Ghul in 2005’s Batman Begins, it was probably still the roles of Oscar Schindler, Michael Collins and Alfred Kinsey that he was most synonymous with. But it’s now these action-roles that seem like his bread and butter. Kick-starting this reinvention was his lead in Luc Besson and Pierre Morel’s 2008 film Taken. Since then we’ve seen him show up in Clash of the Titans, Unknown, The Next Three Days and the aforementioned A-Team.
You wonder whether there’s anything in the fact that he has appeared drawn to these bigger impersonal action roles ever since the death of his wife Natasha Richardson in a skiing accident three years ago. Strangely enough that loss seems to resonate throughout The Grey. Neeson plays Ottway a hunter who protects the drillers from Alaska’s wolf packs. He relishes the isolation of the frozen landscapes and is living this life to try to come to terms with being separated with his wife.
Of the supporting cast, Frank Grillo’s Diaz and Dallas Roberts’ Hendrick are the only ones to be given enough to really excel. In a film like this you sometimes relish seeing the cast’s numbers dwindling one by one, but here you actually care as the men expire in a variety of inventive and frightening ways.
The real star of the show is the location. The film was shot around the town of Smithers in Canada’s British Columbia province, and in a Q&A following our screening, Carnahan admitted enjoying his enforced catharsis of living alone in a cabin in the mountains for the duration of the shoot. The snow, wind and ice are all chilling (zing) and the challenge that these men, and the film-makers, faced in dealing with these conditions is never in doubt.
So far, so good. But we have yet to get to the main threat in play here – the wolves. The entirely-CG wolf pack all look kinda OK, but once we get up close to them they’re more like weird-looking monsters than a relatable threat. Their howls and glow-in-the-dark eyes make for a few creepy moments and quick scares, but once they attack the plane wreck in the opening act there’s not really enough to them to stretch out for the duration of the next 90 minutes.
Things also begin to drag midway through as the predictable clichéd characters emerge from the pack of survivors. The guy who seems to know exactly what to do in times of crisis. The guy who thinks this guy is a spoofer and shouldn’t be trusted. The guy’s got got a girl back home. The guy who gets to say “I think I hear water. We must be near a river!”
In a film like this, it’s almost impossible to avoid falling into these traps. The ending is pretty brave and Carnahan should be applauded for his directorial choices. There’s just a sense through-out that he was aiming for something bigger than a b-movie, and it’s unfortunate he never really gets there.
USA / Joe Carnahan / Joe Carnahan / Starring: Liam Neeson, Dallas Roberts, Frank Grillo, Dermot Mulroney, Nonso Anozie, Joe Anderson, Ben Bray, James Badge Dale / 117min / Action, Adventure, Drama / Release: 27 January 2012 (US, Canada, Ireland, UK)