Down, Big Fella

THE BIG CHILL: Liam Neeson is stranded in snow country in 'The Grey.'

THE INFLATIONARY quality of The Grey begins early, even before the finish, with a four-line bit of indomitable Irish doggerel. Liam Neeson plays Ottway, an Arctic legend busted down to wolf shooter on an Alaska oil-drilling rig. We can see how he feels about this job when he stops to pet the fur of his victim. One glimpse of Celtic loss would have said volumes, but what we get is a fur-ruffling moment of communion. That's when a Jack London–style story turns into the wolf-wrestling adventures of Groundskeeper Willy.

Payday and the flight home—the plane doesn't make it through a storm. Northern California–bred director/co-writer Joe Carnahan (The A-Team) is expert with the small grueling details. A few roughnecks survive the crash deep in the high tundra. The sensible, visually boring thing would be to wait for rescue by the plane's side. But when a pack of wolves begin to pick off some of the extraneous characters, Ottway decides to lead the survivors deep into the woods where "there'll be more cover." The men disappear, and the wolves dine.

The Grey boasts fiercely cold locations, but it put its faith in CGI. When a man's blood fills up an indentation in the snow, revealing a paw print, the image is as pretty as a raspberry snow cone. Also overamped is a cliff-side ordeal, which looks too much like the scene of escape by rappelling with dental floss, which every screenwriter has threatened to do at some time.

One believes Neeson's ability to growl down anything from a moose to a Mountie. There's genuineness in his reprise of the last rites for a wolf, when Ottway advises a mortally wounded comrade to embrace death: "It'll slide over ya." I'll revere Neeson forever for his oncamera confession that his OBE stood for "Other Buggers' Efforts," but a man with such a killer glare doesn't need this script's bullhornlike machismo. The hard-man dialogue is worthy of Cracked. "This is Fuck City—Pop. 5 and dwindling!" heralds a snowy adventure sliced too thick for anyone but Sarah Palin.

The Grey

R; 117 min.

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