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This Week in Genre History: 'The Grey' pitted Liam Neeson against real wolves and something much darker

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Jan 27, 2021, 5:24 PM EST (Updated)

Welcome to This Week in Genre History, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, take turns looking back at the world's greatest, craziest, most infamous genre movies on the week that they were first released.

In January 2008, Liam Neeson starred in a modest little action-thriller about a dad with a very particular set of skills who's hellbent on rescuing his kidnapped daughter. Nobody expected much from Taken — Neeson was a respected, Oscar-nominated actor, but not exactly a box-office dynamo — but the film shocked the industry by becoming a massive hit, bringing in more than $225 million worldwide on a reported $25 million budget. Taken reinvented Neeson as a go-to action hero, an ass-kicking machine who defined a kind of rugged, no-nonsense masculinity.

For the next several years, Neeson capitalized on that new persona in a series of reliably solid B-movies with names like Non-Stop, Unknown, and Run All Night. But there was one film during that run that, although it ostensibly seemed similar in tone, was actually far more poignant and introspective. Neeson didn't dispatch a lot of bad guys in this particular movie, but his character did have to wrestle with his past while fighting off a bunch of wolves — although perhaps the wolves represented something more than just wolves.

On Jan. 27, 2012, The Grey hit theaters. It wasn't as huge as some of his other star vehicles of the period. But it's indisputably the best of the bunch.

The Grey tells the story of John (Neeson), who works as a sharpshooter at an Alaskan oil refinery. When he and some of the drillers head off for some R&R, their plane crashes, leaving them stranded in the middle of a wintry forest. John's job was to kill wolves, and now he and his fellow survivors (including Frank Grillo and Dermot Mulroney) have to make their way through foreboding terrain on foot, knowing full well that the hungry animals will soon be on their trail. The Grey is a man-against-nature thriller, but it's also a meditation on mortality as each of these characters faces the prospect of succumbing to the elements or the predators. And all the while, John is thinking about his wife (Anne Openshaw) who is no longer in his life for mysterious reasons. At the beginning of The Grey, John was thinking about killing himself. The movie is about his fight to stay alive.

"So much of Hollywood is this kind of overly machismo, nonsensical view of masculinity, which I just don't find honest," director Joe Carnahan said at the time. "I think it's this idea of — you know, we're told, 'Well, be a man, be a man.' But what does that mean, exactly? Does that mean you can't carry yourself with any fear? That you can't acknowledge that you're scared? You can't acknowledge that 'I'm not sure what's waiting for me beyond this realm'? I think these are all things that played upon me, and I wanted that to play upon these characters."

Anybody just looking to The Grey for the slick thrills of Taken was in for a rude awakening. Lots of films have a high body count, but few wrestled with life and death as profoundly as this one did.

Why was it a big deal at the time? Neeson's commercial appeal had been cemented by Taken, and so he soon found himself in demand for action movies that catered to a slightly older, male audience. One of those, a big-screen redo of the 1980s NBC series The A-Team, had failed to launch a franchise, but it did bring the actor into the orbit of Carnahan, who was making his first summer event movie after doing more low-budget offerings like the acclaimed cop drama Narc and the gonzo crime film Smokin' Aces. However, the emotional underpinnings of The Grey, which Carnahan had co-written (based on an Ian Mackenzie Jeffers short story), meant a lot more to him than the cartoon adventures of John "Hannibal" Smith.

"I think The Grey was very much [Carnahan's] love child," Neeson once said, "so I think he was more sensitive than he was on The A-Team. But he's an alpha male, you know? He's a throwback to those directors from the '30s and '40s, I think — [Henry] Hathaway, Howard Hawks, John Ford. He's a real throwback to those guys, you know, and I love that in a director."

In keeping with other Neeson B-movies, The Grey didn't cost a lot to make — reportedly around $25 million — and Carnahan surrounded his lead with solid character actors, as opposed to flashy stars. That decision would help give the film a gritty realism, as did the choice to incorporate real wolves alongside animatronics and CG for The Grey's nerve-wracking suspense sequences. "When you have an actor working against [animatronics], man, with a puppet of that size... I don't care how long you've been performing, or if you know that it's being puppeted, it's still a big head with huge, sharp teeth snapping at you, so you're going to have a visceral reaction to that," Carnahan said, later adding about the on-set wolves, "You're aware very quickly that they're not domesticated animals... You could get them to move left to right, but anything else, like getting them to howl, was very, very difficult."

Survival stories have always been popular, whether it's the 2001 novel Life of Pi (later turned into the acclaimed Ang Lee film) or 127 Hours, and they often possess a philosophical bent. That was true as well for The Grey, and its themes of grief and loss seemed even more acute because of the tragedy that had recently befallen Neeson: His wife Natasha Richardson died in 2009 during a skiing accident. Was a film about a man mourning his beloved a way for Neeson to process that unimaginable sorrow?

"I wasn't consciously channeling anything," the actor later insisted. "If an audience takes that with them or is aware of that, then that's good, you know?"

Regardless, The Grey was going to be a heavier action flick than usual from Neeson, even though it had a pretty great hook: Liam Neeson fights a bunch of wolves! Or, as he himself once described The Grey, it was "Jack London meets Jaws." Who wouldn't want to see that?

What was the impact? In its opening weekend, The Grey sailed to No. 1, knocking former champ Underworld: Awakening from the top spot. (Clearly, America couldn't get enough of wolves and werewolves at the time.) Neeson's film was narrowly bested by Chronicle the following weekend, but it had nice theatrical legs, staying in the Top 10 through Presidents' Day. And critics largely liked the film, recognizing it wasn't a straightforward action vehicle. In his review, Michael Phillips noted that Carnahan "gives several of the men... extended soul-searching discussions about God's existence (or not), about owning up to one's fears, about the precarious nature of love. The best parts of The Grey connect the interior lives of these roughnecks with their newfound and lethal obstacles to safety."

Bringing in about $81 million worldwide, The Grey paled in comparison commercially to Unknown ($136 million), Non-Stop ($222 million), and the Taken sequels, which each grossed over $320 million. This film was more meditative and soulful — it was a man's man's movie that was unafraid to be emotional and actually interrogate masculinity.

When I interviewed Frank Grillo years ago for another project, we talked about The Grey and how the movie's themes resonated with him. "When I read the script, my immediate thought was, 'This is Deliverance,'" he told me, referencing the classic 1970s survival drama. "It's not about what it's about — it's about what happens to these men in this circumstance. It's about 'What is a man? What is life? Why do we wanna exist? Why do we fight to live? Why would we give up living?' These are questions that a man, at some point in your life, you start to ask these things — if they're honest with themselves."

Those kinds of questions hardly guarantee a big box office. (Sometimes, you just want to watch Neeson beat up European thugs, not ponder the grand mysteries of existence.) But The Grey was a modest success — and part of its allure was that it could never be the start of a franchise. Just about everybody dies in The Grey — we're not even sure if John makes it out alive — and the bruising realization of just what happened to his wife made this a wholly satisfying, self-contained story. Rather than wanting sequels, you wanted to watch it all over again to relive the emotional journey these characters go on.

"I've seen the film twice now," Neeson said in early 2012, "and what I like about my guy is that he knows that he's looking into the abyss but he keeps putting one foot in front of the other. He's not curling up like a fetus. There's hope or, at least, there's determination." As bleak as The Grey could be, there was also something inspiring about it.

Has it held up? Some will complain that The Grey is too self-important or navel-gazing, too easily enchanted by its pseudo-profound themes. But by trying to say something meaningful within the confines of a survival tale, Carnahan and his cast showed an ambition that's rare for the genre. In fact, The Grey can be read as much more than an examination of manhood, grief, and death. Carnahan pointedly had these men work for an oil company, the very people who are destroying the environment, only to then thrust them into a situation in which the natural world gets its vengeance.

"I don't think the film will make people fear wolves, but I'd like to make them respect wolves and by extension, nature itself more," he told the Los Angeles Times around The Grey's release. "I'd like the movie to remind people that we're just visitors here, and the defiling and destruction of the natural world puts us at odds with our environment and we're ultimately provoking a power that is supreme, overwhelming, and merciless."

There's a lot going on under the surface of The Grey, which makes its taut suspense sequences and forceful acting all the more potent. And it's a movie that may mean more to you the older you get, as questions about mortality and regret start to become more pressing.

"I think the things I thought about when I was 20, I think about differently at 40," Carnahan said when the film came out. "You have a different set of ideals and personal philosophies that begin to emerge, and I thought it was important to get at these things in an honest manner." Anybody who's willing to engage with The Grey with the same amount of honesty will discover it's a film that, beyond being thrilling, gives you a lot to chew on.

Tim Grierson is the co-host of The Grierson & Leitch Podcast, where he and Will Leitch review films old and new. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.