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MOVIE REVIEW: 'The Grey' proves to be a pulse-racing thriller

In this film image released by Open Road Films, from left, Dallas Roberts, Dermot Mulroney, Liam Neeson, and Nonso Anozie are shown in a scene from "The Grey." (AP Photo/Open Road Films, Kimberley French)

In this film image released by Open Road Films, from left, Dallas Roberts, Dermot Mulroney, Liam Neeson, and Nonso Anozie are shown in a scene from "The Grey." (AP Photo/Open Road Films, Kimberley French)

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In this film image released by Open Road Films, from left, Liam Neeson is shown in a scene from "The Grey." (AP Photo/Open Road Films, Kimberley French)

The Grey

(R)

3 1/2 out of 4 stars

At first pass, "The Grey" makes for a lousy title for an action -- make that any -- movie. Painfully generic and lacking even a small inkling of the contents, it's barely serviceable. Within 15 minutes, it starts taking on multiple meanings. There's the grey landscape, the grey moral ground and the ominous grey wolves with the spotlight eyes that hover in the margins.

Correctly being marketed as a man's man type of adventure thriller, "The Grey" might also catch fire with many over-35 females -- and not just because it stars Liam Neeson. They are the exact same demographic that turned the similarly themed "Jeremiah Johnson" and "The Shawshank Redemption" into cult classics with largely female followings.

All three movies include a female character with fleeting yet crucial importance to the story. All three are set in the most unforgiving of settings and all feature a lead character that flat-out refuses to ever give up.

Neeson plays Ottway, an Irish born legal gun for hire working for a nameless oil company in Alaska. He accompanies drilling teams in the field and his sole duty is to take out wolves that get too close to camp. There has already been a major stink raised by various animal rights groups regarding the treatment of wolves in the movie. Not so much because some of them (mostly computer-generated, mind you) are killed but because they are portrayed as villains. It's simple; if seeing predatory carnivorous animals die on-screen repulses and/or sickens you, don't see the movie.

In mid-flight, the plane carrying Ottway and a crew home from a job crashes leaving only a handful of survivors and it is one of the most impressive -- impressive meaning nerve-wracking and remarkably choreographed -- plane crashes ever committed to film. Director Joe Carnahan, cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi and their three editors break nearly every rule in the book and set new filmmaking standards with this single scene. It alone is worth the price of admission.

In the aftermath of the crash, Ottway takes charge and comes up with a make-shift plan for survival. Five of the six men essentially follow Ottway's lead, yet as is always the case in disaster flicks, there's a lone wisecracking, Debbie-downer type included to get on everyone's nerves. Here it's ex-con Diaz (Frank Grillo) and he's very good at being a pain.

This is the only part of the movie where Carnahan caves to convention. The survivors are ultra-balanced and forcibly p.c. -- three whites, two Hispanics and one black man and all of them come with their own distinct, sometimes broadly written character traits. It's not a deal-killer but it is a definite distraction.

Another part of Carnahan's story that has been called into question is the alleged inclusion of religious metaphors. This is simply not the case. There are two scenes where characters vocalize what could be perceived as praying or talking to God but as far as we can tell neither character is religious. When in life-threatening situations many people seek divine intervention but it is almost always out of desperation, not because of an inherent faith. Ever heard the phrase "there are no atheists in foxholes"? That's more of what's going on here.

There's another scene that, if you wanted to and forcefully rationalized it, could be viewed as a Biblical parable but it's a huge stretch and one that Carnahan probably didn't intend to be symbolic.

Recalling his own "Narc" and "A Simple Plan," Carnahan saturates the screen in wintery non-color and the effect is overwhelmingly fitting. A handful of times he includes silent panoramic distance shots of tree-strewn mountains that look like sun-robbed Ansel Adams photographs. They are foreboding but also strangely serene and comforting. It's only when what's shown in these shots is seen up close does it become a threat.

The only time Carnahan uses anything but black, white or grey is with blood or fire and in the dozen or so perfectly chosen and strategically placed flashback scenes. Half of them include a mystery woman that gets superbly woven into the crash sequence and one in the final scene that will make you view the film in an entirely different light.

Rarely are audiences afforded the luxury of getting a film this good in the wasteland of mid-winter. If you've had your fill of pretentious Oscar-bait twaddle and are looking for something that will get your pulse racing while making you think, "The Grey" will more than fit the bill. (Open Road Films)