F. Scott Fitzgerald said there are no second acts in American lives. But there are plenty of second acts in movie careers, and the one that’s tickled me most lately is AARP-aged, Oscar nominee Liam Neeson’s sudden ascension to B-movie badass icon.
After doing time for most of the aughts’ in period epics, playing the grizzled mentor to less interesting stars like Leonardo DiCaprio and Orlando Bloom before politely excusing himself to go die somewhere near the end of the second reel, Neeson had a fluke smash with the shamelessly entertaining Taken .
Now, the one-time star of Schindler’s List makes a habit of spending the snowy-season beating the crap out of people in modestly budgeted pictures that are exponentially more enjoyable thanks to his hearty presence, sly humor and grave commitment to even the thinnest of material. (Yes, I even liked Unknown.)
Arriving right on schedule for your midwinter’s fix of Neeson badass-ery is The Grey, director Joe Carnahan’s pulverizing survivalist nightmare set in the Alaskan wilderness. There are two surprises here. The first is that Liam Neeson is not running around exotic locales knocking the teeth out of Eurotrash baddies for a change. (This time he’s fighting wolves.)
The second is that this is a damn good movie.
Neeson stars as Ottway, a brokenhearted, suicidal hulk of a man who has found himself working for a crooked oil company while surrounded by drunken roughnecks in middle of nowhere, Alaska. He keeps to himself, writing florid, apologetic letters to a long-lost beloved that he never dares send.
But when their plane crashes en route to Anchorage, Ottway finds himself leading a motley band of macho-posturing survivors on a trek through some seriously nasty terrain. None of these men is suffering from the illusion that their employer cares enough to come looking for them, and the dwindling supplies and monstrous weather should be more than enough to do our boys in, provided they can keep from killing one another first.
Oh, and then there are all those fucking wolves.
Luckily for all of us, Neeson once again has “a particular set of skills.” Ottway knows his way around the wilderness, and knows these fanged beasts all too well—he’s been charged with killing them each time they set foot on oil company property. Suddenly finding himself prey, Ottway’s suicidal tendencies give way to a pure survivalist muscle-memory—if he’s gonna go out, it’s gonna be on his own terms, goddammnit.
Traveling across the most inhospitable of surroundings, finding untold peril and calamity in vast ravines, rushing rivers and the awful indifference of Mother Nature, The Grey is a refreshingly stripped-down, no-frills tale of Man vs. the Elements, the kind of rousing outdoor adventure we haven’t seen since Anthony Hopkins, Alec Baldwin and David Mamet’s dialogue got stranded a few miles nearby in 1997’s The Edge.
And like The Edge, I imagine this is a picture that will grow on me even more with repeat viewings. I honestly had no idea Carnahan had something like this in him.
Famous for helming glib, mouthy crime-movie knockoffs that get off on their own inflated sense of faux grit, Carnahan is responsible for Blood, Guts Bullets And Octane, Narc, Smokin’ Aces and was most recently sighted attempting to turn The A-Team into a big-screen franchise.
The Grey has a stillness heretofore unseen in Carnahan’s work, an awe of these awesome untamed surroundings and their pitilessness toward such puny mortals. It’s the first Carnahan movie that could credibly be called restrained, calling back to pictures like Deliverance by letting the pictures do the talking, instead of incessantly asserting his own annoying cleverness. This is a huge leap forward for a filmmaker I had written off many movies ago.
Of course it would all be unthinkable without Neeson, here at the center of almost every frame, magnetic in his over-sized gravitas and rumpled grace.
Perhaps my favorite moment of Neeson’s career arrives when one of the oppositonal loud-mouthed, tattooed tough-guys (played strikingly well by Frank Grillo) lets loose with a blistering torrent of profanity before announcing: “I ain’t scared!”
“I’m terrified,” Neeson smiles, warmly. “No shame in that.”
It’s classic Liam, with that winking Irish fatalism and incongruously soft voice. He’s large enough, weathered enough and so comfortable in his own skin he makes admitting to one’s own frailty look like the bravest thing you could possibly do during a he-man dick-measuring contest.
Later, he calls God “a fraudulent motherfucker” and fist-fights a wolf. This movie is awesome.