"The Grey" is anything but your basic black-and-white thriller.
Despite the presence of Liam Neeson, who has found a second stage in his career as a butt-kicking hero, and an ad campaign that suggests Neeson is battling the entire wolf population of Alaska, this is a film that has surprising depth. There is a lot going on underneath the rigid exterior, making "The Grey" a cut above standard action fare.
Neeson plays Ottway, a member of an oil drilling team on the outskirts of Alaska who goes down in a plane crash. The horrific crash leaves seven survivors desperate to get to civilization, forced to brave the brutal elements and a pack of bloodthirsty wolves.
While there are moments when the wolves seemed a little too human, director Joe Carnahan (who also co-wrote the screenplay) does a good job of keeping "The Grey" grounded in a harsh reality, with impending doom always lurking around the corner.
After a cheesy voice-over from Neeson, "The Grey" really takes off with an intense plane crash and keeps up the tension with the seven passengers (including Dermot Mulroney) desperately trying to survive the seemingly insurmountable odds.
Between the action and the wolf attacks, there are some really insightful moments where we get to know these guys - moments that also show the seven people contemplating their own existence. They're the kind of moments you don't find in many mainstream action films, and I found it refreshing.
Carnahan, Neeson and the rest of the cast make this work on a level I never imagined possible going into the film. "The Grey" is a movie that will have you on the edge of the seat one minute, then reflecting on your own existence the next. It's a pretty compelling piece of work.
DVD dandy of the week
This week's dandy is "Drive" (A), a slick and highly entertaining bit of film noir that is more about attitude and mood and less about words.
With a European look by director Nicolas Winding Refn and Ryan Gosling heading a strong cast, this is the type of film that takes a deliberate pace and builds to a fantastically intense dramatic crescendo.
Gosling plays a character simply known as Driver - a Hollywood stuntman who moonlights as a hired driver for petty criminals.
Driver moves into a new apartment, where he strikes up a friendship with Irene (Carey Mulligan), a mother of a young child whose husband (Oscar Isaac) is about to get out of jail.
The husband returns home and reveals to Driver that he needs a driver for a job he has to do to pay off former associates. Driver agrees, but the heist goes awry and puts everyone in jeopardy.
Gosling continues his string of strong work. It's a performance with little dialogue, but Gosling commands your attention - evoking memories of James Dean or early Marlon Brando in the process.
Mulligan is fine as the female in the story, but there is some meaty supporting work by a trio of men. Bryan Cranston is really good as Driver's broken-down and morally bankrupt mentor, while Ron Perlman has a menacing turn as a low-level gangster.
But Perlman isn't the biggest heavy in the film. That distinction belongs to Albert Brooks as another gangster entangled in Driver's dilemma. This is a change of pace from Brooks' previous work in lighter fare, such as "Broadcast News" and "Mother." The fact that he failed to get a best supporting actor nod when the Academy Award nominations were announced last week is still one of the biggest head-scratchers of the year.
People expecting an action film such as "The Transporter" (which the ads suggest) will likely be disappointed. This is a film that starts with a really cool opening sequence, then settles in with a slow build that turns ultraviolent in the second half - with a style that reminded me of David Lynch's "Blue Velvet" and "Wild at Heart."
If I have any complaints with "Drive," it's that the final scene isn't quite as satisfying as it should have been. But that's a minor glitch in a film that is full throttle from the opening moments. Moviegoers looking for a smart and stylish diversion will not be disappointed.
"Drive" is rated R for strong brutal, bloody violence, language and some nudity, and is now available on DVD.
- To get sportswriter/movie reviewer Micheal Compton's up-to-the minute thoughts on all things movies, visit his blog at mcompton.wordpress.com or his Twitter page at twitter.com/mcompton428. You can also email him at email@example.com.