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‘The Grey’: Anatomy of a Smash

January 30, 2012

‘THE GREY’ $20M OPENING SHOCKS SHOWBIZ, read the headline on Deadline.com. For once, founder Nikki Finke couldn’t claim she “TOLDJA!” But I could–and not just because my friend Matthew Aaron had been talking up the movie on his podcast with director Joe Carnahan.

The Grey‘s not-so-secret weapon is Liam Neeson, who’s making a habit of opening action dramas north of $20 million during cold-weather months—Taken and Unknown were the last two. Boxofficeguru.com’s  Gitesh Pandya has wisely dubbed him “the thinking man’s action hero.” That may underestimate his appeal to women, especially when you consider what else these three films have in common: They all depict Neeson mourning or avenging the loss of a female loved one, much like he did following wife Natasha Richardson’s death from a 2009 skiing accident (shortly after Taken hit theaters).

I’m not saying Neeson is exploiting his wife’s death; it may even be subconscious on his part that he’s been attracted to scripts like Unknown (in which he wakes up from a car accident to find his wife, played by January Jones, no longer recognizes him). But it’s hard not to think of Richardson when in The Grey, Neeson survives a plane crash in the snowy Alaskan wilderness and is constantly haunted by visions of his long-lost wife (Anne Openshaw) telling him not to be afraid.

Of course, there’s another good reason why The Grey is making so much green: It’s a great freaking movie. Carnahan, who also cowrote the screenplay with Ian McKenzie Jeffers (based on his short story), finally delivers on the promise of his breakthrough film, 2002’s Narc.  His previous collaboration with Neeson, 2010’s ill-conceived big-screen blowup of The A-Team, would never prepare you for the subtle shades of The Grey: It’s like an action film written by Samuel Beckett.

As they battle wolves, winds and sub-zero temps, Neeson and the six other survivors movingly ponder existential questions of God, faith and fate. The flawless ensemble includes Warrior‘s attention-grabbing Frank Grillo as the scrapper who challenges Neeson to become alpha male of the human wolfpack as well as the always-reliable Dermot Mulroney and two casualties of AMC’s late, underrated conspiracy series Rubicon, James Badge Dale (devastating in a single scene) and Dallas Roberts.

But in the end, it’s Neeson’s movie, and he’s remarkable in it. His acting seems to have taken on a new depth since Richardson’s death (okay, maybe not as Zeus in Clash of the Titans, but the guy’s gotta make a living). When he’s sitting alone in the cold, staring up at the sky and screaming at God to prove His existence, you can imagine where Neeson found the grief. And there’s nothing grey about that.

Did you see The Grey? If so, what lured you into the theater—Liam Neeson?

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15 Comments
  1. BBrightman permalink

    I must have seen a different movie – or it’s a guy thing…Mr. Neeson’s many charms notwithstanding. “Ponder existential questions of God, faith and fate?” One campfire scene!! One guy throwing in the towel in view of mountains! I mean, it was ok – but toooooo loooong. Wow, my first disagreement with Mr. Fretts.

    • bruceafretts permalink

      It was bound to happen someday! Maybe it is more of a guy movie, but I’d be curious to hear what other women think of it…

  2. Great review. Neeson is out-standing here and gives probably one of his best performances that we have seen from him in a very long time. The rest of the film also works because there’s not only this certain paranoia going on but even when the “action” comes, it’s tense, brutal, and surprising. Best film of the year so far even though that’s definitely not saying much.

    • bruceafretts permalink

      Agreed! At one point, the studio was considering a late 2011 release in hopes of scoring a Best Actor nomination for Neeson. I wonder why they scrapped that plan—he might’ve had a shot.

  3. Mamatisek permalink

    Really Bruce, you and Matt are both nuts, it was a horrid movie. The ending was terrible.

    Don’t tell me it’s a thinking man’s movie I’m not buying it. I have so many questions about it, things that didn’t seen to add up. It made no sense. And the gore factor…..

    I hate when you see people getting killed off one by one, like a slasher film. but someone always gets saved at the end. The end was terrible. I can’t imagine by Liam Neeson agreeded to do this film.

    Matt’s mom.

    • bruceafretts permalink

      Forget the wolves—this movie is ripping a family apart!

  4. SusanB permalink

    Went with the 2 teens (boys) and hubby. We were all very pleasantly surprised. I hated the ending (though did see the final shot at the verrrrrrry end of all the credits–good one), though I can appreciate it. All in all, a good night out.

    • bruceafretts permalink

      I missed the final shot! Now I’ll have to go see it again…

  5. Mamatisek permalink

    why would you see it again????????????????
    Really, the whole thing needs to be rewritten!!!!

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