- - Thursday, January 26, 2012

One way to think of “The Grey” is as a grim fairy tale: Liam Neeson versus the Big Bad Wolves.

Of course, it’s sometimes hard to tell which is which: Man or animal, there’s not much difference in director and co-writer Joe Carnahan’s vicious nature thriller, which pits Mr. Neeson and a band of well-insulated crash survivors against a den of territorial Alaskan wolves.

With its raw masculinity and its grueling survivalist ethos, Mr. Carnahan’s vision plays out like a cross between a Cormac McCarthy novel and a vintage John Carpenter film. Part wilderness horror flick, part bleak existential fable, “The Grey” is a throwback to the sort of B-movies we see too rarely anymore - a gripping, gutsy riff on the death of God and the will to live carefully wrapped in an exceptionally tough-minded genre thriller.

Mr. Neeson plays Ottway, a private security guard at a wintry drilling operation whose job is to kill wolves before they can sink their teeth into any of the resident oilmen. When we first meet Ottway, he is bulked up in a bright white parka with black highlight that makes him look like a puffy, padded version of a “Star Wars” storm trooper - a faceless, corporate killer with little to live for. He shoots a wolf, heads to a crowded bar for a drink alone, and then proceeds to stick a rifle in his mouth.

Will he pull the trigger, or choose to live another day? That cruel but fundamental choice - to be or not to be - permeates the coldest reaches of Mr. Carnahan’s movie. Before long, Ottway and a crew of grizzled pipeline workers face a similar quandary: After their plane crashes on the way back to Anchorage, killing all but a handful of the passengers, the challenge for those who remain is to survive - not only against the elements, but also against a pack of killer wolves hunting them down, one by one.

With their glowing eyes and fighter formation pack dynamics, “The Grey’s” computer-generated wolves don’t look particularly realistic, but that’s not the point. Instead, Mr. Carnahan casts the furry, fanged baddies as quasi-mythical creatures - as much horror-movie monsters in the mold of the “Alien” series as nature’s killers.

The wolves also serve as mirrors and metaphors for the surviving men, all of whom look the part. Shaggy and unshaven, they end up in what amounts to a turf war with their animal nemeses. At one point, they even find themselves locked in a wilderness version of a street-gang stare-down.

A lot of macho bluster is on display, but Mr. Carhanan allows the swagger to be undercut by the dire stakes of the situation. The movie proves its characters’ manhood by testing it rather than through easy boasts.

At this point, no one needs to prove Mr. Neeson’s mettle. In the past few years, he has become an unexpected action icon, even as he heads toward his 60th birthday. Here, he musters up the requisite gravitas - growling out his lines with a gravelly amplified rumble that sometimes makes him sound as much beast as man. The twist in this fairy tale is that Mr. Neeson turns out to the biggest, baddest wolf of them all.

★★★½

TITLE: “The Grey”

CREDITS: Directed by Joe Carnahan, screenplay by Mr. Carnahan and Ian Mackenzie Jeffers

RATING: R for violence, language, gore, survival horror

RUNNING TIME: 117 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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