Film review: Joe Carnahan's 'The Grey' has a bit of an overbite

"The Grey” was probably pitched as something like “’Alive’ Meets Jack London's 'To Start a Fire' Meets ‘Wolfen,’” or maybe “Jaws — But Wolf Jaws, Not Shark Jaws.” It combines aspects of all of these and a bunch more. Whether you'll warm to this frigid Arctic (or sub-Arctic?) adventure will depend largely on your feelings about the genre.

Director/co-writer Joe Carnahan (“Narc,” “The A Team”) doesn't waste much time setting things up. Ottway (Liam Neeson) is a sharpshooter at an isolated oil rig, charged with picking off any predatory animals who endanger the roughnecks. It's quickly established that Ottway is despondent, right on the edge of suicide, over a former love. So he has less to lose when — flying to civilization with a bunch of coworkers — their plane hits bad weather and crashes ... less than 15 minutes into the film.

Ottway and six or seven others survive. The most obvious move would be to build fires and huddle inside the wreckage, but then the wolves show up. Wolves may not spontaneously attack humans, but — as Ottway explains at one point — his party seems to have landed smack dab in the middle of the wolves' turf, which they will (understandably) kill to protect. After the first bloody encounter with the animals, Ottway convinces the others to march away, hoping he can lead them beyond the perimeters of the wolves' domain.

Over the course of three or four days — an hour and a half in our terms — the trek is interrupted by their stalkers, who generally manage to fatally maul someone. Who will be killed next? How many will survive? Or who will be the last man standing?

I criticized the pacing of Carnahan's 2007 “Smokin' Aces” for being too frenetic, never giving us a chance to catch our breath. So I feel a bit sheepish making the opposite complaint this time around. These guys do a whole lot of sitting around the campfire, talking. Such scenes help develop the characters, but by the end only two of the men (beside Ottway) are really differentiated.

The animals themselves are a composite of animatronics, CGI and stunt wolves. They're scariest when all we see are eyes in the dark; when they get up close and personal, it's hard to focus on anything but the gory damage they're wreaking. “The Grey” — why they don't use the preferred “gray” in the title is anyone's guess — fully earns its R rating.

The plane crash is horrifying but nowhere near the intensity of the equivalent scene in Frank Marshall's “Alive” (which one of the guys references). The second-most horrifying scene is straight out of “Sometimes a Great Notion,” but not as effectively executed.

The biggest problem with the film, however, is the relentless bleakness of its tone. There is some variety in the deaths — not all are from wolf attacks — but there's something wearying about the certainty that, every 15 minutes or so, the group will have one person less. Except for the complaints above, it's well crafted, but it's definitely not the feel-good movie of the year.

ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on “FilmWeek” on KPCC-FM (89.3).

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