After inflicting The A-Team on the world in 2010, Joe Carnahan seemed poised to become something of a Michael Bay figure, making very loud, very busy action movies that were too long and generally unpleasant to watch. I really, really, really hated The A-Team, so I was not completely sold on watching The Grey, despite a very exciting trailer that showed star Liam Neeson preparing to fight a wolf more or less barehanded, taping a knife into one fist and several knuckles full of broken glass on the other. I heard good things about it the longer time went on, so when my wife rented the movie for us, I sat down to watch with some trepidation, but with a degree of optimism I might not otherwise have had after the A-Team debacle.
I will say at the very outset of this review, before I say anything else, that The Grey is far and away a better film than The A-Team. Not only is it narratively more cohesive, but it completely jettisons the hyperactive filmmaking techniques that literally gave me a headache while watching that other film and delivers up a truly surprising, thoughtful and suspenseful story.
Liam Neeson stars at John Ottway, a man hired by a huge, unnamed oil conglomerate to live in the frozen wasteland of northern Alaska and protect the other employees from deadly attacks by the wildlife, especially wolves. With his rifle in hand, Ottway is a killing machine, but lest you think that this is another variation of the kind of character Neeson plays in the Taken films, Ottway is quickly revealed to be a psychologically tortured man who has lost pretty much all of his will to live. The film opens with a voiceover narrating the content of a letter he writes to his former wife, though the reason for their parting is not explained until well into the film. The letter is tantamount to a suicide note.
Ottway has nothing in common with the rowdy wildcatters that populate this outpost at the end of the world, and he seems as glad as he’s capable of feeling when it’s time to return to civilization. Boarding a flight out of the snowy wastes, he anticipates… something, but his plans are interrupted by the sudden and catastrophic malfunction of the plane, which goes down in a harrowing sequence that leaves all but a handful of the other passengers dead. It’s ten below zero on the open ice and snow and supplies are minimal. Moreover, the landscape is infested by aggressive wolves attracted by the smell of available flesh.
Pseudonymous British author Lee Child first burst onto the scene with the 1997 release of the novel, Killing Floor, which introduced the world to the character of Jack Reacher. Child would go onto write seventeen more volumes over as many years about this character, with more no doubt in the offing. There’s been a major motion picture based on the character and Child has sold more than 50 million copies of his books. It’s safe to say this Reacher thing has been something of a success.
This is all the more surprising since Jack Reacher is a fairly simple character at heart. A former military policeman, Reacher begins his adventures after leaving the service. Bereft of any real purpose in his life, he takes the money he’s gotten from the government and heads out onto the highways and byways of America living like a hobo. He doesn’t even carry a change of clothes and doesn’t have the basic skills necessary to operate a washer or dryer.
What Reacher can do, however, is get into trouble, and he manages to do just that from the opening moments of Killing Floor. Having just walked fourteen miles in the rain down a country road to a nowhere speck of Georgia town well off the interstate, Reacher has settled in for his first cup of coffee of the day when he’s set upon by the local police, who arrest him at gunpoint for a murder he could not have possibly committed.
This turn of events sets into motion a relatively straightforward conspiracy plot that will find Reacher entering the confidence of certain officers in the town’s police force, essentially taking over their investigation of the murder and eventually wreaking righteous havoc (and death) on the bad guys. If you think this book is going to turn out any other way, then you have probably never read a book before.
Child himself has said that Killing Floor is not his best work, which is good because it takes some of the pressure off me when I criticize it. Readers were clearly blown away by Killing Floor, since it went bestseller almost immediately. Each of the follow-ups have been bestsellers, as well, so whatever else one might take Child to task for, he clearly knows The Secret. It’s the same secret that writers like Dan Brown have, where every book is a smash even as their fans acknowledge that they’re reads meant specifically for fun and not as great writing.
In 1997, pseudonymous British author Lee Child published the first of what would become seventeen (and eighteen as of this year) novels about a strange, Shane-like protagonist named Jack Reacher. Reacher, as described in the book, is a 6’5″ hulk of a man with muscles so tough they can literally deflect bullets, utterly without mercy when evil is afoot, but otherwise a general misanthrope. He has no job, no family, no ambitions, and simply wanders the country living off his military pension with only the clothes on his back and a travel-sized toothbrush as his possessions.
So based on that description, the very best person to play him would be Tom Cruise. I mean, it just makes sense.
Originally called One Shot, the name of the ninth Reacher novel, this film was renamed Jack Reacher to capitalize on the character’s success. Child has sold over 50 million books to date, so there are a lot of people out there who like these things. Judging from Jack Reacher‘s box office numbers, however, the casting of Cruise in the title role put many of them off and there will likely not be another in the series. But don’t feel bad for Cruise, because he recently announced that he’s doing another Mission: Impossible movie. So there.
The pattern of these Jack Reacher books are almost exactly the same: something bad has happened or is happening and Reacher wanders in to become essential to the resolution of the problem. At the end he meanders off again. That pattern is precisely replicated in Jack Reacher. As the film opens, a sniper very carefully takes up position in a parking garage, not seeming to care at all that his vehicle is being caught on security cameras going to the sniper’s nest, and then sets about cold-bloodedly murdering five random people on a bright, sunny afternoon. But it turns out that it’s all a setup, and the man arrested for the crime is not the one who did the shooting. The captured suspect has only one request: find Jack Reacher.
A couple of times in past reviews I have complained strenuously about movie trailers that wildly misrepresent the films they advertise. This was the case with The American and it was also the case with Hanna, two examples I can think of off the top of my head. In both those cases, the advertising guys decided that no one wanted to watch the kinds of movies they actually were, but would be more likely to buy a ticket if they thought they were thrill-a-minute action films. It’s no wonder audiences came out of those movies absolutely hating them; they had been duped. It’s really nothing less than fraud.
And then we have the opposite problem: trailers that are too faithful to the movie they’re advertising. Comedies usually get the worst of it, containing all the best jokes and leaving the chaff for audiences once they finally buy their tickets, but it’s not unknown for action films and dramas and even horror flicks to get the summary treatment. Dream House is one such victim.
I should say at the outset that I was able to come into Dream House relatively unspoiled. I heard very early on that this film, starring Daniel Craig and the always-great Rachel Weisz, had a major swerve in it and that this swerve — which is easily the best part of the movie, believe you me — was simply given away in the trailers. The one thing that would make audiences sit up and say, “Wow!” had been robbed. As a result, I assiduously avoided every trailer that came down the pike, determined to get the freshest experience possible. I couldn’t avoid the knowledge that there was a twist, but I could at least spend my time guessing what it might be, as you are probably doing right now.
Having seen the movie and liked it for the most part, I join the chorus of other voices warning you away from Dream House‘s trailer. Do not, under any circumstances, watch one frame of the advertisements for this movie. Not only will it spoil the movie in the most egregious way, but it will probably ruin your day, too, knowing as you will that you could have been surprised in a genuine way by a movie, but now never will be.