There's little in Joe Carnahan's previous films, marked by their frenetic, fanboy-friendly overindulgences, to predict the cold blast of The Grey, an old-fashioned, neatly arrayed survival story that almost reads like a reaction to the excesses of his past work. The more likely explanation is that the director is something of a chameleon, adapting his style to suit the demands of whatever genre he's operating within, a malleability that finds him scaling back to tell this story of hard men battling the elements, armed with little more than their wits. Whatever the case, this effort reads as a huge improvement, if not a direct step forward.
With hectic blast-fests like The A-Team and Smokin' Aces, and referential, post-film-school fodder like Narc, Carnahan displayed a taste for elaborate plots, which come to fruition with fascistic, violent precision, a method that prizes process over outcome. It's a hollow, exhausting approach, and these films are failures because they expended all their energy setting up these elaborate scenarios, resulting in movies that ran out of steam by the end of the act two.
These big bad messes are fueled by a mordant dorm-room existentialism, a point of view which insists on a world that is morally bankrupt, emotionally hollow, and inescapably pointless. The Grey is driven by roughly the same ideas, and it's definitely rough in this regard, but there are two important distinctions. The first is the tamping down of the director's style, which progresses from whip pans and self-conscious color filters to a more balanced approach, combining stunning Arctic vistas with a pitiless palette of whites, grays, and blacks.
The second is a shifting of gaze, matching up the view of emptiness with the cold void of nature at its harshest, and the blank stretches of the Alaskan tundra prove to be a much more suitable setting for this type of story. The result is a film where plans still have the utmost importance, but they're finally integrated organically into the fabric of the plot, which charts a continuing back and forth between their formation and collapse.
Liam Neeson takes charge of the action as John Ottway, a professional wolf hunter employed to protect pipeline workers, who starts off the film with an abortive suicide attempt. The rest of it plays out almost as if he succeeded: Ottway's plane home crashes, leaving him injured amid a flaming wreck in the middle of nowhere, menaced by wolves unhappy with intruders so close to their den. It's the kind of airy story which seems ripe for symbolism, something that Carnahan never provides, instead sticking to a basic, no-frills tale of man versus nature.
In keeping with this basic structure, Ottway is less a fully established character than a machine springing into action, his instincts taking charge as he attempts to marshal the survivors and make it back to civilization. Driven by the most basic of motives, he's the same type of action-figure male lead as the ones that fronted Carnahan's previous films, and the director remains over-fascinated with the not terribly interesting mystique of male efficiency. But despite his simplicity, Ottway is riveting, partly due to Neeson's commanding presence. So while the character isn't especially deep, he's relatable, trudging forward with an ever-present grimace, driven not so much by the will to live as to compulsion to strike back hard against the uncaring universe which has forced him into this position.
It feels almost sacrilegious to compare The Grey to Budd Boetticher's minimalist westerns, but Ottway shares a lot with the heroes of those straightforward tales, a character whose nihilism seems more and more valid as the story progresses, remaining grave-faced as the world satisfies his meager expectations. Ottway is the hero here because he's competent, angry, and aware of the odds against him, not because he has any special chance of succeeding against them.
This gritty nihilism braces the movie, providing a tough spine to support the increasingly brutal situations these characters encounter. Things could have benefitted from a little more stripping, and the film's worst qualities are inevitably its most obvious, from the still-gaudy, lens-flare-stricken cinematography to a repetitive series of flashbacks, which lead up to a twist ending that, if not tonally dishonest to what's come before, is still mostly unnecessary.
But The Grey largely works, building toward a great ending, which functions as one of the best, truest action climaxes in recent memory. As a flawed but still highly effective action film it's also valuable as a harder-edged companion piece to Lee Tamahori's The Edge, substituting grizzled oil workers for big-city greenhorns, wolf pack for bear, man's futility against the world's callousness for his futility against his own internal savagery. The two also stand out as action movies which set out on a path and doggedly stick to it, resisting the urge to collapse into action-packed third-act bluster, an especially impressive outcome considering Carnhahan's spotty history.