This Winter, in The Grey, Liam Neeson plays a brooding sharpshooter who fights tough to save his ass from being eaten by wolves following a plane crash in the Alaskan wilderness. Last winter, in Unknown, he played a brooding biochemist who fights tough to save his sanity and retain his own identity following a coma in Berlin. Two winters before that, in Taken, he played a brooding retired CIA agent who fights tough to save his daughter following her abduction in France. You see the pattern here? Winter-release slot + travel budget + Liam Neeson = slightly preposterous, routinely violent, apparently lucrative action movie in which the Irish-born star signals inner emotional conflict with his handsomely mashed boxer's face while settling outer physical conflict with his boxer's fists.
Once we accept, with some head-scratching, that this is the lowbrow route (to riches, presumably) chosen by a 59-year-old actor who once reached higher, playing Oskar Schindler and Alfred Kinsey, we are left only to compare these marketplace-driven projects for their entertainment value. And as Neeson No-Brainers go, this one, directed as if on a diet of testosterone injections and shots of absinthe by Neeson's A-Team helmer, Joe Carnahan, is a reasonably entertaining, loopy blend of brawny bonding and Samuel Beckett-approved rumination. The existential conundrum under discussion is, What does it take to fight another day with no hope of salvation? The theme is reinforced whenever The Grey's spectral, CGI-created wolves come out, beaming their Village of the Damned eyes at an ever-dwindling huddle of Alaskan-oil-refinery workers who've survived the dramatic, Lost-worthy airplane crash. They might have been better off dying instantly.
Neeson plays a loner named Ottway, whose sharpshooting oil-field job was to protect the work site against wildlife attacks. Before the crash, he was suicidal, saved from self-destruction only by sun-dappled bedroomy memories of his loving wife. After the crash, Ottway is the one who rallies the living, sometimes just by growling at them with an Irish accent. He shares his survivalist skills with frightened, angry men including a Swaggering Blowhard Ex-Con (Frank Grillo), a Large Gentle Black Man (Nonso Anozie), and a Reasonable Guy Who Reads (Dermot Mulroney, almost unrecognizable behind bookworm eyeglasses). The starving, freezing men struggle through snowdrifts, fight wolves, and philosophize around campfires. There are eight, and then there are seven, and then there are fewer than that. Ottway suffers terribly haven't you seen those facial lacerations on the posters? He can't go on. He sees another vision of his wife tangled in sexy bedsheets. He goes on. So, apparently, do these Liam Neeson action passion plays, as surely as a new year begins. C+