Alaska, present day. Ottway (Liam Neeson) is an exterminator, killing wolves who might attack oil pipeline workers. He's near-suicidal after the loss of his wife. His roster is being flown back to Anchorage at the end of their shift rotation, but it crashes in a blizzard. There are seven survivors. Ottway takes charge, primarily because he understands wolves better than anyone else, and a pack of the animals is stalking the crash site, attracted by the dead bodies. The seven, reckoning the authorities will never find them, decide to trek to civilisation. They're tracked by the wolves. A battle of endurance and wits ensues.
The Grey is a old-fashioned grown-up movie of the kind they almost don't make any more, pitching Hawksian everyman character actors against nature, God and each other. Director Carnahan deliberately doesn't introduce us properly to all of them; these are initially ciphers who develop character through their conflicts and in the quiet moments between action sequences. The technical work is generally fine throughout; there's a splendidly-realised plane crash and the real/CG/animatronic wolves are well done. Only a cliff-top climbing sequence fails to convince fully, either in the visual effects or in the contrivance that allows the party to cross the ravine.
Neeson centres the movie in his efficiently unshowy way, projecting authority and doubt in equal measure. Carnahan knows when to hold off and just let him be on camera: Neeson's practically on-screen for the whole two hours. The wolf attacks are fast and brutal, there's plenty of blood, hypothermia and shivering in remote locations. There's just enough ambiguity in what's going on to allow us to understand the wolves as allegorical as much as real; the humans adopt some of the pack animals' attributes more than once, for example, and Neeson gets a great actorly rant-against-God moment. In these moments, The Grey is almost as good a wilderness thriller as Deliverance or Jeremiah Johnson.
The Grey isn't perhaps for everyone, as it's not a upbeat tale of male bonding and survival against the odds. It's a tad grimmer than that, a more serious movie, and something of a return to the original promise Joe Carnahan showed with his first film Narc after the more lightweight Smokin Aces and A-Team. Recommended.