It's easy to assume that all movies released in January and early February are either shit or Oscar movies getting a wide release. This is partially because it tends to be true, but it tends to mean that January releases get unfairly judged. But it also means that when a good movie gets released in January, it tends to look really good by comparison to everything else. But I like to think I'm mostly unbiased, so hopefully it means something when I say that The Grey would be good no matter what time of year it is.
Liam Neeson has the lead as a sniper hired by an Alaskan oil rig to protect it's workers from predators. On his way home, his plane crashes and he and a small group of survivors must make their way to safety, while battling the elements, starvation, each other. Oh and a small but vicious group of wolves. Anyone from Alaska who is expecting me to grouse about wolves not acting that way...yeah they don't, but so long as breaks in reality are in service of a good movie, I can overlook it.
Acting, as it does, primarily as a suspense/action film, The Grey can survive quite a bit of cliché so long as it's engaging and watchable and in that respect, it does. On the whole, it resembles nothing so much as a disaster film, with the characters trying to get to safety from an impossible situation. The wolves, who remain offscreen for much of the action, act primarily to ramp up the stakes and keep the characters.
The screenplay is actually fairly solid, which is one of the more shocking things about it. The characters, while mostly cliched, do have moments that allow them to transcend their clichés and become more rounded human beings, which goes a long way to making the already tense scenes even tenser, as we actually care about their fates. Mostly, there are a couple cannon fodder characters. Credit must go to the actors to being able to credibly sell their roles and make their characters interesting. Liam Neeson in particular does an excellent job, putting a tremendous amount of work into making his character unique and interesting. Sure you've heard a lot of this film before (difficult start, questioning leadership, makeshift weapons, physical obstacles, manly bonding etc.) but it's extremely well put together and engaging, which is all you can ask really.
The film was directed by Joe Carnahan, who's previous work includes the excellent Narc and the awful A-Team and Smokin' Aces (and one movie I've not seen, but shut up). While he tends to waste his competent work on indulgent Tarantino inspired tripe, if this and Narc are any indication of what he can do when he calms himself down, he may eventually find himself on the level of Michel Mann or maybe Tony Scott.
It's not a film without flaws, even within it's genre constraints. Several scenes read a little like 'okay, here's the characterization dump,' the film gets going so fast that it's a little awkward at the beginning (I think they wanted to start it directly at the plane crash but backed off). And towards the end I started to think that the reason the wolves stay off screen so much is less because they felt that the Jaws style 'keep it in suggestion' was scarier and more because the CGI used to realize the wolves is really iffy when seen up close.
Look, this movie would be really, really, REALLY good no matter what time of year it was released during. But to see a movie of this quality getting 'dumped' into January is damned near a miracle. Right now, unless you're catching up on Oscar flicks, this is the best thing you could possibly hope to see right now, so definitely give it a look.
Elessar is a 22 year old Alaskan born cinephile and he thinks they should do a remake of this movie with wolverines. Cuz wolverines are assholes.