Liam Neeson is part of an oil drilling team stranded in icy Alaska. <em>*Photo courtesy of Open Road Films </em>
Liam Neeson is part of an oil drilling team stranded in icy Alaska. *Photo courtesy of Open Road Films

Stars: Liam Neeson, Dermot Mulroney, Frank Grillo
Director: Joe Carnahan
Rated: R
Showing: Neptune Cinema week of Friday, February 24. For more information call 292-7296.
Tickets: Buy tickets online
Runtime: 117 minutes
Action/thriller

Liam Neeson pumps up the volume on his reputation as a middle-aged neck-snapper with The Grey, in which he doesn't take on a pack of bad guys but a pack of really, really bad wolves.

It makes for an occasionally suspenseful, if credibility-stretching, thriller with a strong, emotional performance from Neeson at its core.

And it's a departure for director Joe Carnahan, who usually approaches action-adventure with a smirk and a wink (The A-Team, Smokin' Aces) and instead goes for something more grim.

Neeson is Ottway, a loner type working at a remote Alaskan oil-drilling station as the man whose duty it is to keep predators away from the camp. On a flight to Anchorage with a bunch of his rowdy colleagues, the plane goes down in dramatic fashion in the middle of an icy nowhere, killing most on board.

The survivors include a mouthy ex-con (Frank Grillo), a thoughtful introvert (Dallas Roberts), a dad who's afraid of heights (Dermot Mulroney), a smart aleck (Joe Anderson), a guy prone to severe altitude sickness (Nonso Anozie), and Ottway, of course, who's miraculously uninjured and just happens to know all about Arctic survival.

They soon realize that not only do they have to deal with the hostile elements but a veritable gang of malevolently intelligent and aggressive wolves, whose goal is to take them out one by one.

The movie has sparked anger from some animal-rights activists who say it demonizes wolves, creates unnecessary fear, and goes against what's known about wolf behavior and how they relate to humans. But the wolves shouldn't be viewed through the prism of realism but through the lens of a horror film where animals - from birds to sharks - represent our deepest fears and nightmares.

In that sense, The Grey is often brutally effective, as the baying beasts tighten their circle around the fleeing roughnecks. When the men must cross a chasm or get swept into a rushing river, the tension is palpable.

Through it all, writers Carnahan and Ian Mackenzie Jeffers (who wrote the short story on which the movie is based) manage to humanize them somewhat, as they talk of survival and faith. All of it is heightened by the setting (it was shot in British Columbia) and austere cinematography of Masanobu Takayanagi (Warrior).

The Grey falters in a few areas: At times, the animatronic effects used to create the wolves are too obvious, and the one-by-one kill-off plotline employed in so many horror films gives The Grey a plodding predictability. At nearly two hours, it's also too long.

Still, be sure to stay through to the end of the credits, though whether you think the brief coda is a rip-off or inspired may depend on how you view what came before it.

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