Liam Neeson is that rare breed of actor who grows more badass with age who at the cusp of 60 appears quite credible besting men 30 years younger – or anyone else foolish enough to provoke him. In The Grey – a gripping but ponderous man-versus-wild epic directed and co-written by Joe Carnahan (The A-Team) – his foe is no less formidable than Mother Nature in all her fury. She has met her match.
Neeson plays Ottway a man whose sole job on an Alaskan oil rig consists of gunning down the occasional wolf that makes a run at an oilworker. (Fences apparently being in short supply in the Arctic.) Ottway is a hard stoic sort and one gets the strong sense that he tended toward irascibility even before his wife departed (for reasons not made clear till late in the film) taking with her his remaining purpose for living. He gains a new one appropriately enough when his flight home crashes down in the Alaskan wilderness killing all but a handful of its passengers. Ottway his survival skills honed in a previous life emerges as the only person capable of guiding them to salvation.
Carnahan surrounds Neeson with an ensemble of familiar types the most notable of which are Talget (Dermot Mulroney) the family man Henrick (Dallas Roberts) the conscience and Diaz (Frank Grillo) the jerk. They encounter the predictable male team-building hurdles puffing chests and locking horns before Ottway asserts himself as the Alpha Male. Figuring they’ll perish before salvation arrives they agree to make the perilous trek to the nearest human habitat braving any number of dangers the most fearsome of which are the ravenous “rogue wolves” that roam the landscape. (The film shot in British Columbia in conditions that were apparently every bit as brutal as they appear on-screen certainly looks authentic – both beautiful and ominous.)
When they aren’t battling the predatory lupine menace the men have time – far too much time – to reflect upon their plight and its existential implications. The Grey would have been perfectly enjoyable as a straightforward survival epic the “Liam punches wolves” movie promised by the trailer but Carnahan is intent on imbuing the film with a philosophical poignancy wholly unsuitable for a film featuring lines like “We’re in Fuck City population five and dwindling ” and “We’re gonna cook this son of a bitch!” – the latter uttered at the capture of one of the wolves. As a film Carnahan’s macho metaphysics leave The Grey feeling a bit overcooked.
Pixar may be the undisputed king of animated features but with this film DreamWorks is officially nipping at their heels and gunning for the title. At first glance a cartoon dragon movie with a slew of comedians voicing the accompanying Viking characters seems like a recipe for a typical cute fun family film but How to Train Your Dragon delivers far beyond that. The film is a sweet story about looking beyond first impressions sprinkled with bits of thoughtful humor (for kids and adults) and wrapped in the beautiful sweeping scenes of a remote Viking nation and the beautiful locales that surround it.
Though the film’s original 3D theater format can’t be beat the Blu-ray still offers a crisp colorful viewing experience that is true to the film’s incredible scenes. As the pipsqueak protagonist Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) rides his pet dragon Toothless through canyons and clouds over the ocean and through forests you can still get a taste of the impossible sights and almost feel the sensation of riding along with the duo.
Like any Blu-ray disc How To Train Your Dragon comes packed with extras that are sure to keep fans entertained. You’ve got your typical behind-the-scenes videos explaining how animators created the world of Vikings and dragons (well worth the watch) and allowing viewers to step into the recording studio with the actors and witness a little of the comedic improvisation that gives the film its extra laughs.
The disc also features pop-up trivia tracks and an animators' commentary with picture-in-picture storyboards and art but the kid-friendly features are the main attraction. It’s got plenty to keep the kiddos busy including a tutorial with one of the animators where you can learn to draw the adorable Toothless a series of chuckle-inducing vignettes about Viking winter sports voiced by the Viking blacksmith Gobber (played by the always hilarious Craig Ferguson) and an amusing Viking personality test that will tell you your aptitude for taming dragons and give you your own Viking-approved name.
The real special feature however is the short film The Legend of The BoneKnapper. The 16-minute feature reunites the film’s entire cast and picks up where the film leaves off with another short adventure for the Viking gang. Gobber and the gaggle of young Vikings (with the help of his pet goat Phil) follow the trail of the mythical BoneKnapper dragon in attempt to find out if he really exists. Despite the absence of Toothless the little vignette is fun and entertaining giving audiences a little extra taste of the cast and story without going overboard. The real gem is Craig Ferguson’s hilarious narration which brings back some of the humorous flavor from the original film.
Once respected NYPD detective Jack Mosley (Bruce Willis) is now pretty much on his last legs literally and figuratively. He drinks is relegated to a desk job and walks with a limp. One morning after a long shift he’s corralled into transporting a petty criminal Eddie Bunker (Mos Def) to the courthouse 16 blocks away so he can testify by 10:00 a.m. What Jack doesn’t know is that Eddie is one of the key witnesses in a case against crooked cops--that is until the two start getting shot at. Then it becomes crystal clear. The main bad guy Jack’s former partner Frank (David Morse) basically lets Jack know Eddie will never testify to just go ahead and hand him over but Frank underestimates Jack’s desire to finally do something good. So Jack and Eddie fight their way to the courthouse block by gut-wrenching block. Oh no there’s nothing formulaic about 16 Blocks not at all. In a film as predictable as this the only thing that’ll make it stand out is the performances. 16 Blocks nearly succeeds--but not quite. It would seem Willis is playing a character he’s played a hundred times before--the misunderstood and slightly unorthodox cop with a heart of gold. But as Jack the actor does a nice job trying out some new things namely playing fat bald and grizzled. You can almost smell how bad Jack’s breath has to be. Rapper/actor Mos Def who usually brightens any film he’s in also tries his hand at something different but his choices aren’t as smart. As the talkative and affable Eddie Mos comes up with one of the more annoying nasally accents ever recorded. After about five minutes of screen time you desperately want him to stop and say “Just kidding! I don’t really talk like this.” But he doesn’t. It’s too bad something like an accent can ruin an otherwise decent performance. Old-school director Richard Donner best known for his Lethal Weapons is a consummate professional when it comes to making these kind of movies. In other words he pretty much paints by numbers. We watch Jack and Eddie get out of one tight situation after another as the gaggle of bad cops try to gun them down. I mean 16 blocks doesn’t seem that far to go so they better throw in as many highly implausible obstacles as they can. Chinese laundries alleyways rooftops subways. And yes even a city bus which the pair--who have by now bonded big time--has to hijack. Donner also employs a popular but nonetheless annoying technique of zooming in when the action heats up so you can’t really see what’s going on. Even if you’re addicted to action movies--a Bruce Willis action movie no less--16 Blocks just doesn’t deliver the goods.