Movies

The Grey and Man on a Ledge

Desperate measures

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The Grey

What will it take to finally bring humankind together, to unite us all in respect and appreciation and a sense of shared purpose? How about a pack of vicious wolves intent on tearing us to bloody shreds? Judging by The Grey, director Joe Carnahan's new deep-freeze thriller, that might do it.

The best thing about this movie is its shivery hypothermic vérité, a credit to the skill of cinematographer Masanobu Takanayagi, working under what must have been very trying conditions. The story is set in the snow-blown wastes of Arctic Alaska, and the brutally frigid environment, with its attendant sub-zero temperatures, is vividly depicted—the actors, haloed in clouds of breath condensation, really appear to be freezing. (The picture was actually shot in northern Canada—not a tropical getaway in any event.)

The main characters are part of a group of oilfield roughnecks who were en route from their remote worksite for two weeks of R&R elsewhere when their shuttle plane took a dive into the icy tundra, leaving them suddenly either stranded or dead. Only eight men have survived. Fortunately, one of them is Liam Neeson, whose warm, hefty presence would be reassuring in any predicament. His fellow survivors are a traditionally mixed bunch: a couple of nice guys (Dermot Mulroney and Dallas Roberts), one wiseass (Frank Grillo), and one gentle fellow (Nonso Anozie) who clearly shouldn't be making any long-range life plans.

Neeson's character, John Ottway, is employed by the oil company as an animal-control marksman, charged with blowing away the predatory wolves that lurk about the drilling site in search of unwary snacks. Ottway's expertise in this area will now prove most useful, since his desperate little band has been targeted by a pack of really big wolves who appear to have taken a personal interest in picking off the weary survivors one by one. (The combination of animatronics, CGI, and actual critters used to represent these lupine stalkers is strikingly realistic.) There's much ripping of flesh and arterial puddling amid the pawprints in the snow—although it should probably be noted that spoilsport animal-behavior experts have already dismissed this sort of wolfish aggression as entirely uncharacteristic. (When one of the men says, "Wolves are the only animals that will seek revenge," you immediately wonder: revenge for what?)

The animal attacks become predictable after a while, and the movie's action is further diluted by some limp narrative flourishes—rote shots at God for not coming to the rescue (the wolves are presumably big God fans), and touching flashbacks to a few of the men's loved ones (a darling daughter in one case and, in Ottway's, a wife from whom he is heartbrokenly separated). The ending is fiercely overwrought, not least because of its link to a purportedly inspiring poem written long ago by Ottway's father, which serves only to demonstrate that the old man had no gift for versification. The movie might have been better without such hackneyed elements. It's not bad as it is, but not-bad is really all it is.   

Man on a Ledge

Man on a Ledge is a tight little crime thriller—a heist-movie variant—with a few small problems and one big one. Given the top-notchness of the supporting actors here assembled—Ed Harris, Jamie Bell, Anthony Mackie, Titus Welliver—the casting of doughy Sam Worthington in the lead seems crucially ill-advised. True, Worthington was also the nominal star of James Cameron's Avatar; but really, who will ever think of that techno-epic as a Sam Worthington film? The mildly amiable Aussie is a stranger to star power, and putting him at the center of this picture is like building a fancy banquet around a main course of vanilla pudding.  

In any case, the character Worthington has been called upon to play would challenge many a more resourceful actor. Nick Cassidy is a disgraced New York City cop, framed for a high-profile jewel theft and consigned to Sing Sing for a very long stretch, who escapes his warders, returns to Manhattan, checks into a room on the twenty-first floor of a midtown hotel, climbs out the window, and then spends most of the rest of the movie huddled on the titular ledge, in what we at first take to be suicidal despair. This constrained situation offers little opportunity for physical or emotional expression, and it shines a cruel light on Worthington's charisma deficit.

Still, there's some snappy action going on all around him. The script, by Pablo F. Fenjves—a star-bio specialist whose literary credits include ghostwriting the reviled O.J. Simpson murder book If I Did It—is a compendium of nicely tweaked genre clichés. As a police suicide-prevention specialist named Lydia Mercer (Elizabeth Banks, boldly miscast) attempts to talk Nick back into his hotel room, we notice that he's wearing a small wireless broadcast rig. Then we see that what he's actually doing is supervising a jewel-vault break-in at a building nearby—a robbery that's being pulled off by Nick's brother Joey (Bell) and his hot Latina girlfriend, Angie (emphatically hot Genesis Rodriguez). The object of this caper is to retrieve a golf-ball-size rock called the Monarch Diamond—the gem allegedly stolen by Nick from frothingly evil real-estate mogul David Englander (Harris). If Joey and Angie can repossess the diamond…well, you get the idea.

Stirrings of romance between Nick and Lydia as she attempts to sweet-talk him off his ledge are too silly to merit much attention; but some of the police on the scene keep things lively, especially hard-nosed top cop Marcus (Welliver); Nick's old partner Ackerman (Mackie), who's convinced his friend is innocent; and mild-mannered Dougherty (Ed Burns), whose purpose is to express withering resentment over Lydia's presence. ("I hate that bitch.") And the affectionate wisecracking between Bell and Rodriguez as they go about their break-in lends a nice comedic tartness to the proceedings. Less helpful—wholly unnecessary, in fact—is the presence in the crowded street down below Nick's lofty perch of a TV news-honey named Suzie Morales, who is for some reason played by the distinctively un-Latina-like Kyra Sedgwick.

The Danish director, Asger Leth, heretofore a maker of documentaries, works up some familiar tension in cutting back and forth between Nick muttering on his ledge as a tactical squad closes in to force him off of it and Joey and Angie going about their burglary—which involves all the usual vent-crawling, shaft-climbing, and tech-wielding neutralization of various security alarms. A lot of their ingenuity is fairly entertaining, if light on surprise. But then, again and again, just as we're beginning to take a sustained interest in the story, it hauls us back to Worthington, and pudding is served. 

Kurt Loder is a writer living in New York. His third book, a collection of film reviews called The Good, the Bad and the Godawful, is now available. Follow him on Twitter at kurt_loder. 

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