Writer/director Joe Carnahan's 2002 crime drama Narc earned him nodding approval from cineastes who were surprised by the flair and sneaky intelligence he brought to that movie — it was a firmly cop-genre picture, but one done with blue-collar smarts and crafty visuals. Here was a guy, a real Guy's Guy, who had something to say beneath all the bluster and machismo. Carnahan, unfortunately, failed to build on that foundation with his followup films Smokin' Aces and The A-Team, both big, noisy, dumb movies that signified nothing. A disappointment! Now along comes The Grey, another genre movie about grunting men, that comes loaded with the hopes that Carnahan has found his surefootedness once again. So has he? Well, yes and no.
The movie begins promisingly enough. Through a desaturated, shaky lens we see Liam Neeson, in all his tough-yet-aging stern cragginess, cold and forlorn at "a job at the end of the world." Through lyrical voiceover we learn the important details: It's the job of Neeson's character, the simply named Ottway, to keep workers at some sort of Prudhoe Bay-esque Alaskan outpost safe from wolves, and there's a wife, seen in dreamy bedtime flashbacks, whom Ottway deeply misses but knows he can't get back. The voiceover proves to be a letter, a suicide note even, that Ottway has written in preparation for sticking his rifle in his mouth and ending it all. But something stops him at the last minute — was it the wolf's cry heard in the distance? — and he winds up on a junky looking airplane bound for Anchorage with a score of his grizzled, rowdy colleagues. There's natural, overlapping tough-guy banter on the plane, and as the camera darts around, investigating these hard-livin' faces, one begins to think that, yes, something different from your usual dudes-in-survival-mode movie is happening here.
Oh yeah, I should mention that this plane ride is, of course, a doomed one. After a terrifying, bracingly realistic (as I'd imagine it, anyway) crash scene, seven surviving men find themselves stranded in the frozen Alaskan wilderness, essentially lost to the outside world. These early post-crash scenes are tense and scary, as Ottway comforts a man bleeding to death inside the ruined fuselage and the impossibleness of the survivors' situation begins to set in. British Columbia, standing in for Alaska, looks beautifully bleak and foreboding, all harsh winds and looming gray skies. Up to this point, The Grey is jarring entertainment that's also prodding at something deeper, a kind of arctic strandedness acting as metaphor for emotional winter. But then, alas, the wolves show up.
Anyone who's seen the trailer for The Grey should be well aware that the elements are not the survivors' chief foe in this adventure. No, instead it's a pack of wolves into whose hunting grounds the unlucky roughnecks have unwittingly crashed. And so the chase begins, with the wolves picking guys off one-by-one, while Ottway explains lupine behavior to the terrified men. Wolves have a hunting radius of 300 miles, if you get within 30 miles of their den they will almost assuredly kill you, etc. The script, co-written by Carnahan and Ian Mackenzie Jeffers, gives the creatures anthropomorphic qualities too: They sometimes just kill for killing's sake, they're known to seek revenge ("Wolves are the only other animals that seek revenge" is an actual line from the movie, though it's not Neeson who says it), they test and target specific people. It all sounds like silly junk, even when delivered with Neeson's trademark calm/tense growl. The wolves, though rarely shown in full, they're mostly just blurs of fur and snarl, are not some of CGI's better work — they look almost cartoony, especially the menacing and vengeful alpha male, who has more physicality in common with Sirius Black in Padfoot mode than anything Kevin Costner ever danced with. It turns out, really, that the wolves kinda kill the wolf movie.
Though to be fair to the computer critters, the script does a fair bit of undoing itself. The requisite bond-and-reminisce-by-the-fire scene quickly goes from medium-heavy to later John Donne, as Ottway remembers his mean Irish father whose only soft spot was for poetry, in particular a short, death-centered poem that Elder Ottway wrote himself. The poem, recited twice in the movie, is a vague riff on Henry's St. Crispin's Day speech ("the breach" becomes "the fray") that is supposed to make us ruminate about bravery in the face of inevitable death (or other suffering), but when living inside the same script as wolf revenge and the line "Hopefully they won't fuck with us," it's rendered a little silly. The movie turns from surprisingly thoughtful to tiringly turgid with dismaying speed, with even the once-interesting camerawork becoming flat and rote.
Still, there are some thrills to be had in the survival, and the sturdy Neeson is aided by a strong, unshowy supporting cast. Joe Anderson, a scruffy Loki-like looker who will soon be dealing with another kind of wolf in the final Twilight film, is memorable for his sparky, prickly downbeat humor. The always reliable Dermot Mulroney, growing into crow-footed middle-age with dapper grace, provides a bespectacled sort of gentility. And Dallas Roberts, who should be in more things, exudes quiet poise and intelligence. This is a believable band of accidental brothers, and it's genuinely sad when any of them perish. (Spoiler alert? No, probably not. That's how these movies work.)
The Grey isn't a complete misfire, for its first half-hour and fine actors if nothing else, but it ends with one wishing for something either flashier or deeper. It exists in some confused middle territory, lost out there in the snow searching for popcorn or profundity. If you're after some psychological/zoological drama in the Alaskan wilderness this weekend, you'd be better off renting the great and often overlooked 1997 thriller The Edge, in which Alec Baldwin and Anthony Hopkins crash in a tiny plane and exeunt, pursued by a bear.
If you simply must see a cheap thriller that cheaply delivers in the theaters this weekend, you could do a lot worse than the whizzy new caper Man on a Ledge, a the-whole-city-is-watching populist spectacle from first-time feature director Asger Leth. It's not going to blow any minds with its easily solved puzzle, but as 100 minutes of mild nail-biting, it gets the job done.
B-movie workhorse Sam Worthington, sporting a bizarre mullet hairdo and a bizarrer Astoria-by way of Atlanta-by way of Adelaide accent, plays Nick Cassidy, a former New York City cop now in jail for a long stint for a crime that, of course, he didn't commit. It was a frame job and he's bound and determined to clear his name, no matter the cost. So, after a daring escape, we find our hero at the Roosevelt Hotel in midtown Manhattan, or rather just outside of it, on a 21st-story ledge overlooking Madison Avenue. Nick has placed himself there and is threatening to jump. Is he really suicidal? No, of course not. Heroes in these movies are never suicidal, but they are just brave and crazy enough to stage a fake suicide attempt as a distraction while their younger brother (the nimble, wholly appealing Jamie Bell) breaks into the building across the street with his fiery Latina girlfriend (Genesis Rodriguez) in order to steal a $40 million diamond from Ed Harris' evil real estate developer. See, the real estate mogul lost a lot of money in the 2008 debacle and needed some capital, so he framed Cassidy for the theft, collected the insurance money, and secretly kept the diamond for himself. It should surprise no one to learn that there are crooked cops in the mix as well, and also some good ones, specifically Elizabeth Banks and Edward Burns as negotiators.
And so the movie unfolds its dual storylines, with Worthington having frantic chats with Banks (oddly cast here) and Bell and Rodriguez staging their Ocean's 11-esque heist with a believable amount of unslickness (but an irksome amount of banter). Nothing remarkable happens exactly, but Leth is good at pulling the strings tight and the ledge scenes (lots of ledge scenes in a movie called Man on a Ledge) induce the right amount of shivery vertigo. As in other contained New York-set thrillers like Inside Man and Phone Booth, the swell of a curious crowd is used to good effect here, giving the film the momentum of very public urgency. There's an amusingly timely Occupy Wall Street/99-percenter whiff of outrage in the street scenes and, as part of this madding crowd, Kyra Sedgwick does a good almost-cameo as a sleazy TV news reporter. The film is well-decorated with little bits of business like that, even when the main plot feels a tad basic.
Man on a Ledge is not going to enter any sort of canon, nor will it likely do huge business, but there is enough going in it, enough gentle twists and turns, plenty of near-miss moments of tension, that it feels at least worth the time. Far more so, anyway, than standing on the corner of 45th and Madison, waiting in vain for someone to jump.