In my minutely partitioned movie collection, there is a little section I like to call “old men kicking ass.” The subgenre hit its peak in 2008 when Hollywood realized the youth demographic revered the aging action stars from the 70s and 80s (Chuck Norris jokes may be somewhat responsible). We saw Clint Eastwood and Michael Caine pulverize punks in Gran Torino and Harry Brown, and Sylvester Stallone slurred at anything that moved in reboots to the Rocky and Rambo franchises, not to mention regrouping the Rogaine collective in The Expendables.
Guilt by association places the Liam Neeson of Taken in this category as well, as a 56-year-old clearing a yacht full of machine gun-wielding thugs using only a pistol and having no apparent shortness of breath strikes us as rather exceptional. Neeson may be a few years under the median of the rest of these gentlemen, but his association in the badass elder enclave stands strong.
When I buy Mr. Neeson’s latest film The Grey — which I will do considering it is, itself, rather exceptional — I will not place it beside these vigilante senior pictures. This film has something profound to say, not (wolf) skulls to crush, though the aggressive marketing campaign insists on the latter. The Grey creeps into heavy philosophical territory without pretension but with the innate terror — and, conversely, Zen — these situations carry. For me, that trumps any mindless action rehash, even with the novelty of an old man holding the gun.
Ottway (Neeson) is at the end of the line. He addresses ambiguous notes to his unseen wife and finds himself pulling a gun to his brain in the plot’s first five minutes. Symbolic events ensue and he ends up on an airplane with a crew of oil drillers headed to Northern Alaska. In a stunning scene, the plane falls from the sky in a whirling blur of chaos, silence and light. Eight survivors, one dying, make it through the crash. That man’s death — into which Ottway softly eases him — throws the film as far away from the hyper pulp of Taken as possible, if the initial suicide attempt did not already come to that conclusion.
The terrible plane crash actually brings Ottway back to life. Not to the extremes of Locke’s reaffirming rebirth in Lost, but more in a solemn commitment to save those still with him. His official job in the oil operation is to snipe encroaching wolves, so he knows a few tricks to sustain survival. Unsurprisingly, the crash reduced his rifle to splinters so the circling wolves indisputably have the upper hand.
These savage canines — whose depiction conservationists call deceptive and Joe Carnahan, the director, defends as plausible — pick off the survivors one by one, with different tactics each time. The realism of the wolves’ stalking, strategizing, bloodletting may be questionable, but I have seen enough Planet Earth to know that nature is cruel, and it would not surprise me if apex predators, evolved to dominate in the harshest of climates, could wipe out our truly weak species.
Carnahan takes cues from Spielberg by keeping the wolves off-screen for the most part. Relegating the animals to blurs of grey fur and echoing howls creates creatures far more terrifying than what Canis lupis truly are: a few nucleotides away from Air Bud. Jaws set the precedent for the unseen, and thus omnipresent, monster (actually due to malfunctions on-set that Spielberg took in stride). These wolves could be anywhere, but are always in mind.
But enough about these damn wolves, sharks and boogeymen, for the story cares little about them. Instead, it thrusts men into the most primal of scenarios, where it is not only necessary to kill, but almost impossible not to do so. This crew of ex-cons, fugitives and thieves — “men unfit for mankind,” as Ottway describes, though others might just call them “manly men” — falls victim to the elements with shocking passivity. Diaz, played by Frank Grillo, by far the most captivating of the supporting characters, brutally dismembers a wolf carcass as the rest of the survivors watch in concern. It is not a look of disgust as much as fear that this loss of humanity lurks around the corner for them, as well.
There is one scene that will sear into your conscience. A character gives up, but not in the way you would expect. Carnahan stages an incredibly long shot, proving great courage on his own part (he directed the bombastically mediocre A-Team reboot after all) and balances terror and serenity with minimalist precision.
The solid cast of I’ve-seen-that-face-before character actors and the script’s decency to give them each a humble background brings a complete, circular structure to the plot and themes. It is a heavy movie for the multiplex, especially considering many are expecting Taken 3 (2011’s Unknown was the spiritual sequel) and do not anticipate a Jack London-esque contemplation on nature, death and faith, in all the agony and peace and yin and yang that they carry.
This strife serves as the perfect vehicle for the film’s titan, Neeson. His rugged but mortal face completely fills the poster. It is a handsome face, well suited for close-ups, not unlike the symbolic tarmacs of Clint Eastwood or Dustin Hoffman. His presence guarantees quality regardless of whether the rest is camp or craft. He dominates the screen. How could wolves think they stand a chance?