You can sum up what happens in Liam Neeson's new movie The Grey in one sentence. A plane carrying a bunch of macho men crashes in a remote region of Alaska, and one by one they are picked off by a pack of really macho wolves.
Of course there's a little more to it than that, but sadly there's not much more really. Truly, the one thing you cant point to in The Grey's favor is the presence of Neeson, who is a superlative actor even in a script this thin, and he invests this overwrought film with what dignity and soul it possesses.
The film opens with Neeson playing Ottway, a man who has become so alienated from life that he apparently only has a last name now. Ottway works in the tough as nails world of an Alaskan oilrig, where he earns his living by shooting the threatening wolves that sometimes gather on the perimeter of the operation.
Ottway, we learn, may have lost the love of his life before setting out on his Alaskan adventure, but we're not sure how he did exactly, since the details about his life are so sketchy early on.
Even so, it's hard not to get ahead of his storyline and audience members who are paying attention will probably guess what his real predicament is in the first 10 minutes.
What is clear is that Ottway has lost his faith in himself, in his life and in other people. We learn that he's a haunted shell of his former self and he's rapidly preparing for the world to come.
So when he steps on board the plane that will take his and his co-workers on the rig back to civilization for a little rest and recuperation, you can tell that nothing is really going to work out … and so it proves.
What happens next is fascinating with regard to what it tells us about contemporary tough guys. Hollywood may be the last place on earth where the idea that the only way you can ever get grown men to confront their own emotions is to attack them relentlessly until they confess.
Send them to war, stick them in a boxing ring, film them in speeding racing cars or doing dangerous drug deals, and if all that fails maybe have wolves attack them. Soon they'll be singing like canaries.
But it seems like a lot of trouble to go to for such a modest payoff. The truth is The Grey is not really interested in breaking new ground when it comes to exploring human motivations.
All we really learn through the course of this increasingly ponderous film is that the biggest bullies are often the biggest cowards, and that blowhards are often trying to disguise the fact that they're deeply afraid and we even hear some speculation to the effect that God may or may not exist. This is hardly shattering stuff. In fact, it's trite.
Directed by Irish American action film maestro Joe Carnahan, who brought us 2010's forgettable The A-Team, there is, I have to admit, real cinematic skill at work in The Grey. Cameras sweep over the rigid snow covered wastelands; the plane crash early on is harrowingly realistic. There's no
question that this is a director who knows how to tell a story.
The problem is it’s a story we've seen a hundred times before. The stock characters include the annoying one, the quiet one, the black one, the Latino one and the only one who is going to make it out alive.
You could close your eyes midway through the film safe in the knowledge that you know who'll lose and who'll win. When a game is this stacked, right from the start, what remains to hold your interest?
Well, surprisingly, there are some genuinely interesting philosophical questions being asked in The Grey. The trouble is it's a big budget thriller, and these questions keep getting pushed aside.
Watching it is like watching two films superimposed one over the other -- the first one is a watchable horror film and the second one is an art house existentialist French drama. Taken together they just don't mesh.
To be fair, there aren't many new ways to film frightening wolf attacks without falling victim to repetition. But the opening scene of The Grey echoes to the faint sound of howling wolves, and instead of being chilling it may produce laughter.
We know that although you can't see them, the big bad wolves are always stealing up on you, because we've seen it in a hundred other films. The Grey ends up wanting you to think about the great mysteries of existence, but in the end the greatest puzzle is why Neeson signed on to play the lead after Bradley Cooper dropped out.
The Grey opens Friday, January 27.