February typically serves as a dumping ground for weak studio films that offer an easy alternative to “mainstream” audiences who don’t see Oscar bait, but this year has brought some welcome surprises.
The adult-oriented action films “The Grey” and “Haywire” are actually more worthwhile than several of the major prestige pictures released recently, and next week brings both the found-footage superhero flick “Chronicle” and the classical horror story “The Woman in Black” — nothing to geek out over, but certainly worth noting (I will review one or both next time).
In this column I’ll also take a quick look at “Carnage,” a would-be Oscar contender that got some great early buzz but then quickly and deservedly faded away once people realized that it’s arguably the most immediately disposable and thematically anemic “art film” ever made. In any case, enjoy.
★★★ (out of four)
2012, Dir. Joe Carnahan, U.S., R
A few years ago Liam Neeson decided to change the course of his career, swapping out his usual dramatic fare for leading roles in formulaic action flicks. Under normal circumstances I would bemoan the crass commercialism of such a development, but the fact of the matter is, Neeson has made it work. And I know I’ll catch some heat for saying this, but the change-up has actually made me like and respect him more than ever. Neeson was always been an accomplished actor, and in works like “Schindler’s List” and “Kinsey” he delivered notable, award-nominated performances. But really, those roles could have easily been filled by any number of equally skilled dramatic actors without impacting the overall quality of the films. But could you honestly picture anyone else in “Taken,” kicking butt and taking names with the same effortless sense of cool?
As director Joe Carnahan has noted in recent interviews, Neeson has established himself as one of the last true “men” in a Hollywood system choking on an influx of preening sissies trying to pass themselves off as action stars. But Neeson is a true man’s man, and his very particular set of skills are put to effective use in “The Grey,” a borderline-existentialist survival thriller that pits Neeson and a handful of other plane crash survivors against a pack of hungry wolves in the Alaskan wilderness. The film has been billed as an action thrill-ride, but don’t be fooled: Despite the sudden bursts of violence that pepper the movie, this is largely a mood piece, tackling the Big Issues of life and death and the psychological processes people go through when faced with the prospect of their imminent demise. Yes, Neeson does fight his share of wolves, but if the promo shot of him taping broken bottles to his fists is your primary reason for wanting to see the film, you’re likely to be disappointed.
In some ways, “The Grey” is disappointing even if you’re on board with the whole existential thing. Most of the supporting players are never fleshed out to any extent, so when they are inevitably killed off one by one (if not by the wolves, then by exposure or injury or drowning or any of the other countless ways a man can be killed in the wild) the emotional impact ia muted. It also doesn’t help that Carnahan (as he showed us with his last project, “The A-Team”) has no idea how to block an action sequence, rendering the wolf attacks far less engaging than they would have been with a more seasoned filmmaker behind the camera. But in the end, Neeson’s slow-burn intensity is enough to win the day and make “The Grey” suitable fodder for audiences who are sick of seeing action films populated by skinny teenagers trying to pass themselves off as men.
2012, Dir. Steven Soderbergh, U.S., R
Most contemporary action films are filled with so much boring exposition and unnecessary padding that it’s a sort of shock to the system to see something like “Haywire,” Steven Soderbergh’s pared-down, bare-bones entry in the espionage thriller subgenre. Barely 80 minutes long sans credits, the film is wall-to-wall action and intrigue, with Gina Carano as a black ops government agent on the run after being framed by her superiors. This story has been told a thousand times before, but rarely with the narrative momentum and sustained sense of immediacy that Soderbergh provides here.
In fact, “Haywire” deconstructs the action genre with such cold precision that it could conceivably be seen as some kind of thesis film, with Soderbergh taking the conventions of action filmmaking to their logical conclusion. But however you approach it, “Haywire” remains a crackerjack thrill ride filled with engaging set pieces, filmed by the director in medium to long shots that artfully depict the kinetics of action on screen without getting bogged down by the jump cuts and other “spiffy” editing techniques that so often ruin a perfectly good fight scene. It may not be the most high-brow film Soderbergh has made, but it’s certainly one of the most fun.
2011, Dir. Roman Polanski, U.S., R
I hereby boldly submit that, in addition to being a truly awful human being, Roman Polanski is perhaps the world’s most overrated filmmaker. Sure, he gave us “Chinatown,” which has been my favorite of all films since I first saw it at age of 10. But that was nearly 40 years ago, and I would argue that the only truly accomplished film he’s directed since then is “The Ghost Writer,” which benefited from an exceptional screenplay more than Polanski’s directorial contributions. So yeah, I’m gonna go ahead and call shenanigans on the whole “Polanski is full of art” thing.
Case in point: “Carnage,” a chamber drama involving four people in a room talking about nothing particularly relevant for 80 minutes, after which nothing is illuminated or resolved in any way. Superficially, the movie is about two couples (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly, and Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz) who meet to discuss a schoolyard brawl between their sons. Subtextually, it is about the breakdown of social mores, and how people have a tendency to reveal themselves as the animals they are once their carefully crafted illusion of “society” is disrupted. Practically speaking, though, the film is about nothing at all, and offers no valuable observations apart from, “Wow, aren’t yuppies terrible?”. Yes, they are, but I’m not sure I needed a vapid, thematically hollow, overly theatrical “social satire” to remind me of that.
“The Grey” and “Haywire,” in wide release, are rated R for violence and profanity. “Carnage,” in limited release, is rated R for crude language.
Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at email@example.com.