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(2012) (Liam Neeson, Frank Grillo) (R)

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Dramatic Thriller: Survivors of a plane crash in the arctic must contend with wolves that are hunting them down.
John Ottway (LIAM NEESON) is a man who thinks the better part of his life is over. With his wife now gone from his life, he works as a sharpshooter for an oil company in the arctic, keeping the workers there safe from the predatory wildlife, such as dangerous grey wolves that prowl areas along the pipeline. But it's the howl from one of those wolves that prevents him, in a moment of deepest despair, from ending his life. He then boards an airliner with other men -- some of them ex-cons like John Diaz (FRANK GRILLO) -- and takes flight, only to have that trip end in a horrific crash.

That leaves them and others, including Talget (DERMOT MULRONEY), Henrick (DALLAS ROBERTS), Burke (NONSO ANOZIE), Flannery (JOE ANDERSON), Hernandez (BEN BRAY) and Lewenden (JAMES BADGE DALE), stranded in the snowy middle of nowhere, with no way of communicating with the outside world for help. Realizing they can't stay in what's left of the fuselage lest they starve to death, Ottway takes charge and states they should head for the tree line.

Not only will that potentially provide them some source of food, but it will also give them some semblance of protection from a pack of wolves that have discovered them and begun picking off one man after another. From that point on, and as their numbers continue to dwindle, the men do what they can to survive.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
It's funny -- or sad, depending on one's viewpoint -- how Hollywood and much of the movie-going public has short term memory blinders on when it comes to stars and the movies in which they appear. Granted, some performers purposefully strive for or at least allow themselves to be typecast as a certain sort of character, and they make a profitable living doing so.

Others, however, such as the talented Liam Neeson, sort of accidentally end up pigeonholed at times, at least in terms of one's immediate and myopic view of their latest work. Despite appearing in films as diverse as "Excalibur," "Darkman," "Schindler's List," "Michael Collins," "Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace," "Gangs of New York," "Love Actually" and the "Narnia" films (vocally), the nearly 60-year-old actor has suddenly become the go-to, middle-aged star of action flicks released in the first quarter of recent years.

In 2008, he played a father hell-bent on getting his daughter back from kidnappers in "Taken." In 2011's "Unknown," he played a doctor determined to get his identity back. And here in early 2012, the commercials for "The Grey" make it appear as if his wife has been taken from him and he must search the arctic or similar environs for her, all while dealing with unspecified beasts in the dark.

The ads are obviously designed to pique one's interest in the film -- not to mention remind you of similarly thematic releases you may have seen in the past and enjoyed, and hope that you'll do the same here. If you liked those aforementioned recent flicks or at least the sort of take-charge, no-holds barred character that Neeson plays in them, I imagine you'll have a quite similar reaction to this one.

In terms of those ads and what they suggest or tease the story is about, they're mostly accurate although incomplete with all of the details. Yes, Neeson's character's wife has been taken away from him -- as shockingly shown in the commercials where she's violently ripped away as the two share a quiet moment together in bed -- and there are monsters in the snowy woods that are quite desirous of attacking and feeding on him and those in his company.

But, we quickly learn, the wife is already gone before the story begins and the creatures -- grey wolves of the north -- had nothing to do with that. Following her specifically unexplained leaving sometime in the past (although it's implied she was ill based on a view of an IV in use), he's taken a job working for a petroleum company as a defensive hunter, shooting any canines that threaten the employees out in the wilds when not contemplating and nearly using his rifle on himself to end his misery.

As he and a ragtag crew of other lost souls, ex-cons and such losers take a flight to destinations unknown, their plane crashes in the remote wilderness in what's arguably the most harrowing depiction of such an event ever put on film, complete with a wild dream sequence inserted into that. The few survivors then attempt to find civilization and/or simply survive, all while a pack of territorial and hungry wolves hunt them down.

That's it, folks. It's pretty cut and dried, and writer/director Joe Carnahan and fellow scribe Ian Mackenzie Jeffers (who's adapted his own short story, "Ghost Walker") make sure we understand the stakes by having some of the characters bring up the decades old tale of the Uruguayan rugby team that ended up turning to cannibalism to survive after ending up in a similar predicament. Things never get quite that uncomfortably grisly here, but Carnahan and company keep the pressure on their characters -- and thus the viewers -- by never letting up.

That is, except for the expected few moments of downtime where the wolves are at bay and the characters briefly get to chat. Neeson's character has been undergoing something of an existential crisis and there's briefly talk about faith or lack thereof among some of the characters and their current predicament.

Most of those with the protagonist are barely personified, which is one of the film's few shortcomings, save for the ex-con played by Frank Grillo who barely rises above stereotype as the tough guy who gets peeved that Neeson's character has become the de facto leader of the group, etc.

Such moments, along with the overall film, easily could have become repetitive, redundant and/or unbelievable, watching the wolves pick off one character after another while the survivors flee from or fight the carnivores. Although a little of those issues is present from time to time, Carnahan keeps things moving at a mostly brisk clip, and while we might not care about any of the other characters, we surely have a vested interest in the protagonist surviving.

And in crafting this flick, the director reminds us of what we saw in him long ago with the little seen film "Narc" before he sold out and made the bigger budget flotsam known as "Smokin' Aces" and the remake of "The A-Team." In fact, one would be hard-pressed to guess the man behind the camera of those two flicks was also responsible for this one, both from an action and deeper subtext viewpoint. Hopefully, it will prove to be a hit and he'll become associated with and thus continue making better quality films.

Appropriately suspenseful, showcasing some terrific directorial flourishes from time to time, and further cementing Neeson as the "First Quarter Action Star" of this century, "The Grey" makes one hope they never take anything away from the actor lest he go all middle-aged action star on them. The film rates as a 7 out of 10.

Reviewed January 4, 2012 / Posted January 27, 2012

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