Nearly 40 years after Grizzly, bears seem to be making a comeback as harbingers of nature’s humbling wrath. Earlier this year, Backcountry offered a giant killer bear that served to expose a couple’s latent socio-sexual tensions. It didn’t go so well for them, but they eventually reached a catharsis in which the man was forced to come to terms with his inadequacies, leaving the woman newly available to explore other romantic options. Into the Grizzly Maze (loosely inspired, like Backcountry, by the exploits of Timothy Treadwell) uses a marauding bear to serve an opposing, comparatively more comfortable purpose that affirms, rather than undermines, old-fashioned can-do male gumption.
At the beginning of the narrative, the protagonist, Rowan (James Marsden), is understood to be disenfranchised from society by a past incident that leaves him feeling worthless and ridden with guilt, until a grizzly runs amok in the park bordering his small Alaskan town. Called to action, Rowan utilizes his military skills and expertise to help his estranged brother, Beckett (Thomas Jane), save the latter’s comely wife, Michelle (Piper Perabo). Male bonding and bloody backwoods hijinks ensue.
Backcountry is surprisingly intellectualized, scanning as a stealth horror-movie reworking of Knife in the Water, while Into the Grizzly Maze offers plainer, more conventionally satisfying and reassuring meat-and-potatoes pleasures. The male naval-gazing isn’t quite in harmony with the muscular bear-centric action, leaning a little too heavy on the former, but director David Hackl keeps the film humming along at a confidently brisk pace anyway, building to an impressive climax along a shore somewhere in the titular labyrinthine wilderness. And the filmmakers borrow a neat trick from Jaws, in which the menacing creature’s demise is foreshadowed early on by an anecdote that appears to be serving a differing textural purpose.
Apropos of the bear’s death, Into the Grizzly Maze features the usual mixed environmental politics that’re traditional to monster movies. Namely, the film insists it’s man’s fault that the big critter is going haywire, but that it needs to be killed immediately anyway in a manner respecting its inherent majesty. Those sentiments aren’t particularly compatible (though they do reflect the incoherent sensibilities of many actual hunters), to the point that the heroes and human villains often amusingly say the same things to one another, only in slightly varying contexts to ensure they remain at odds until the grizzly can come charging their way to settle the ledger. These inconsistencies are palatable, though, because the film doesn’t take itself too seriously, and Hackl often films his bear in fashions that accent its lumbering, powerful grace, even during its death rattle, in which it resembles an erect, towering god.