Entertainment writers started calling Will Smith "Mr. July" in honor of his string of wildly popular summer blockbusters, several of which did not debut in July. Using that logic, Liam Neeson has become Mr. January with a series of profitable potboilers released in Hollywood's frigid dead season. Taken in 2008 (plot: Liam Neeson vs. the Kidnappers) was a winter action thriller that surprised the box office for weeks. Awful Unknown in 2011 (Liam Neeson vs. Amnesia) was a successful remounting of the formula after Chloe in 2009 (Liam Neeson vs. Fatal Attraction) veered too far into art house territory.
So. The Grey. Liam Neeson vs. the Wolves seems to be a perfect Mr. January setup, but something feels wrong. Set in the frozen twilight wastes of Alaska, The Grey feels more like a tone poem than the stolid chunks of exposition Taken and Unknown served up. Neeson writes a vague letter to a woman in voice-over as he wanders around a desolate oil field of manly men doing manly things. He's the manliest man of all, hired to shoot the vicious wolves that prowl the perimeter of the encampment.
Director Joe Carnahan slices the narrative up into tiny atmospheric chunks until an unsettling plane crash sequence—frequent air travelers might well be traumatized—sets up the premise. Neeson and a small, unruly crew of survivors must fight their way across the icy north while doing battle with a pack of crafty, man-hungry wolves. From there, things revert to pretty basic man versus nature stuff—you've seen it all before—until the last 20 minutes, which become depressing and impressionistic all over again. Ultimately, The Grey isn't smart enough to become the deep meditation on mortality Carnahan wants it to be, but it's just artsy enough to frustrate the entertainment-seeking fans who want to see Mr. January. Nobody leaves The Grey in a good mood.