Joe Carnahan's wilderness thriller The Grey might be regarded as nothing more than proof that, if Liam Neeson signs up for enough parboiled genre projects - as seems to have become the actor's career plan - he's bound to get lucky every now and again. I can't say my hopes are too high for the forthcoming Taken 2, but Neeson deserves this one: he's freezing his bollocks off here as a suicidal hunter, reduced to doing an oil company's bidding in the Alaskan wilds after the death of his wife, and finding renewed reason to live after his plane goes down, stranding him - and seven colleagues who equally survived the crash - in the middle of nowhere, at the mercy of some very hungry wolves. What follows, as the group attempt to hold firm, only to find themselves being picked off one-by-one, plays like Jaws with paws, or a subzero Zulu, although one Internet wag's rechristening of the project as Liam Neeson: Wolf Puncher comes to work rather well, too.
For, after a decade of post-Phantom Menace tripe, The Grey offers something of a rediscovery of Liam Neeson: Actor. Even if Neeson's entering the sellout hack phase of his career, Carnahan's film suggests he can still be a more compelling, unironised presence than, say, Nicolas Cage now can: the star carries a weight of experience (inevitably accentuated by offscreen tragedies) on his broad, stooped shoulders, and - unlike the outfit he was obliged to don as Zeus in that Titans trash, which left him looking like the most reluctant member of the Glitter Band - the unfussy woollen-cap-and-stubble combo of the hunter Ottway fits him well. In short, Neeson looks like the sort of no-nonsense guy it would, indeed, be handy to have around during a fight to the death in the woods, and as he sits around the campfire, swapping tales of love and war with his credibly grizzled or cowered supporting performers (Dermot Mulroney, Frank Grillo, Dallas Roberts, Joe Anderson, Nonso Anozie et al.), you sense him warming to the idea of the kind of screen presence he might still be, if the right scripts came his way.
For aiding in this transformation, we should co-credit writer Ian Mackenzie Jeffers, author of the short story ("Ghost Walker") on which The Grey is based; we should also - however much it pains us - give Carnahan his due. As The A-Team (and Smokin' Aces, and even his indie-scaled breakthrough Narc before that) made clear, Carnahan is predisposed to mercilessness; here, that mercilessness is newly focused. Threat in The Grey - whether snow, wind or wolf - tears in from every side of the screen, but working with cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi (Warrior), Carnahan reduces the palette to an elemental darkness or whiteness that provides the ideal cover for these men's foes, and results in the best-looking action movie for some time. He's crafty about his set-up, too: often it's enough to fill the soundtrack with vulpine howls and whimpers to let us know what's waiting out there for these characters.
When it comes to the crunch, Carnahan even proves atypically sparing in the carnage he shows: the film is tempered by a degree of humanity and compassion absent from his earlier, noisome action movies, where it didn't matter whether seven people died or 700. The Grey's survivors, when it comes down to it, are men trying to do the best they can with whatever short span remains of their life, and in the tender, respectful death scenes, the director and screenwriter are compelled by what it is they take with them as they pass from this world to the next. It's a film of unusual, muscular characterisation, manly rather than boyish, and true to its own (itself unusually bleak) vision: if we weren't watching it with our feet rooted to the sugarcoated floor of the Odeon, we could be looking on at a Viking rite of passage, or the last, desperate staggers of the Scott expedition.
The Grey is out now on DVD.