Liam Neeson’s unexpected but lucrative shift into marquee action-man territory has at best resulted in fun junk like ‘Taken’, at worst in Eurotrash drivel like ‘Unknown’. With ‘The Grey’, he’s officially broken the slump: the film was developed as a vehicle for Bradley Cooper, but it’s hard to imagine his pretty face at the centre of this terse, rock-solid survival thriller. This is a prime example of the right role for the right man at the right time – as Joe Carnahan’s camera lingers over those steel-blue eyes and that expressionless face, as craggy and rugged as the Alaskan landscape, it’s easy to believe that Neeson is, in fact, harder than a pack of wolves.
Neeson is Ottway, a hard-bitten hunter stranded at an oil outpost. When his plane back to civilisation crashes in the frozen wastes, Ottway must lead a ragtag band of survivors to safety. But surviving blizzards and scaling ravines is one thing, dealing with timber wolves quite another.
After the excesses of ‘The A-Team’, this is Carnahan stripping it back to basics – seven men, one wilderness, countless beasts. His directorial hand is firm: the action sequences thrill, the shocks are effective and if the characters are somewhat slight and the dialogue scenes overlong, the film has a streamlined, Hawksian narrative drive which carries it through the rough spots. Best of all, though, is Big Liam: sharp, surly and mean as hell, he’s as close as we’ll get to a modern John Wayne – and who saw that coming?