It’s not enough these days to make a tough-guy action picture that depends on a group of survivors besting the harsh conditions following a plane crash in the remote Alaskan snow.
Nope, we need something else. What this already dire situation needs is wolves: man-eating, over-sized, relentless wolves.
This is the loopy idea of “The Grey,” which begins like just another testosterone-filled hunk of implausibility and somehow finds its way toward, well, if not existential resonance, at least major coolness. Maybe both.
Chief survivor of the plane crash and leader of the ragged band of survivors is Ottway (Liam Neeson), a tough guy still grieving the loss of his wife.
Neeson, who has unexpectedly become an action-movie star in this autumnal phase of his career, is a terrific choice for this: He looks like he could break someone in half, but he’s actor enough to convey a profound sense of sorrow.
As he leads this motley crew away from glaciers and blizzards, Ottway must deal with the fraying nerves of the men and the malevolent attacks by huge (mostly computer-generated) wolves.
Now, there will undoubtedly be someone pointing out that wolf attacks on humans are extremely rare. This is true. But it doesn’t really matter that the threat is wolves in this movie, because “The Grey” works almost entirely symbolically, anyway. The monsters could be aliens from outer space or a group of deranged hillbillies.
It’s all very philosophical, this movie, which is directed by Joe Carnahan (calmed down slightly after “The A-Team”) and written by Carnahan and Ian Mackenzie Jeffers. It has passages that might’ve come from a Hemingway outdoor story or a European think piece, although it doesn’t skimp on the bucket of blood, either: The plane crash is terrifying, and there’s a long vertiginous sequence involving a cliff and some distant treetops that really does the job.
The actors all look credibly frozen; the location shooting took place in British Columbia. Dallas Roberts, who usually plays sensitive types, is excellent, and Frank Grillo, a journeyman actor who plays the malcontent of the bunch, might just break out big-time from this.
Even the ending is intriguing, but we won’t go into that here. Let’s just say that while “The Grey” has more than a little craziness in its DNA, it also comes through in the important ways: You won’t be able to take your eyes off it.
Liam Neeson leads a motley crew of survivors through the snowy Alaskan wilderness as wolves try to catch them. Despite its improbably premise, Joe Carnahan’s action picture is a philosophical item, with hair-raising suspense and strong performances.
Rating: R for violence, language.
Showing: Alderwood, Everett Stadium, Galaxy Monroe, Marysville, Stanwood, Metro, Oak Tree, Pacific Place, Cascade, Oak Harbor.