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What does it take to be an action hero? Would the protagonist require bulging, veiny, greasy biceps? Do they need to be able to dive out of an explosion in slow motion? What if the key components that comprise a true action hero were less than flashy traits such as assertive decision-making? Crafty/MacGyver-esque resourcefulness? How about an iron will? Enter: Liam Neeson. The ageless Irishman has made a career for himself out of serious dramatic pieces and now he has reinvented himself as a 21st century, middle-aged ass kicker. This time around, he relocates to the frosty backdrop of the Alaskan wilderness as Ottway, who works as a patrolman on an oil refinery. Haunted by the memories of his wife and contemplations of suicide, Ottway is a tortured soul who can’t wait to hop on the first plane out of Alaska. But before he knows it though, he wakes up blanketed in a white blizzard with pieces of aircraft shrapnel engulfed in flames, and immersed in a terrifying scene of snow running red from the blood of multiple corpses. As if this nightmarish display wasn’t traumatizing enough, here come the wolves…
The Grey initially comes off as a straightforward tale of survival, nothing we haven’t seen before. But what appears to be a simple wilderness thriller is elevated to another level by its strong performances and direction. Liam Neeson, in particular, puts the whole film on his back and carries it the whole way. A soft and subtle score transforms what easily could’ve been a cheap thriller with jump scares into a horrific exploration of man’s greatest fears that will make your skin crawl. The wolves are a convincing blend of CGI/puppetry/trained dogs. The philosophical ideas that the film conjures up about faith, religion, and existentialism adds a surprising punch that ascends the movie to new heights. The final product is an exhilarating marathon of endurance about man vs. nature, man vs. man, and man vs. himself.
Liam Neeson brings something to the tough guy role that the Schwarzeneggers and the Stallones may never possess, the ability to act. His quiet, yet strong, demeanor and steely eyes speak volumes without ever having to break or blow up anything. He carries his role as Ottway with humanity and a real life tragedy that makes his character’s story that much more heartbreaking. Ottway is someone you root for not because he is dashing or recites quippy one-liners or dual wields AK-47s while performing a cartwheel. No, you cheer for Ottway’s success because he does the right things at the right time and he never ever gives up. All to the very end, even when the situation looks bleak, he consistently maintains one foot forward. That is the mark of a true hero. “Live or die on this day.”