This is one of those movies that you don’t really have great expectations for, but that satisfies in the way a good hamburger does. When you want what you want, it fills the bill. There is progesterone fueled, tension filled capers and clever plot twists that are not always logical but work anyway. All of it is served up by a competent cast in a well paced couple of hours. I may not hold onto anything here for very long, but that may make the movie very re-watchable because it just meets our needs rather than our hopes.

I have not always been a Mark Walberg fan, but starting with “Boogie Nights” he has gotten better and better. He was overshadowed by the performance of his acting partner Christian Bale in last years “The Fighter”, but he was top notch and probably deserved a nomination like almost everyone else in the cast got. This is a part that he can do in his sleep now, the tough guy with a family and a heart of gold. He has more heart and common sense than the other characters in the movie and of course he is the luckiest criminal in the world. Every time something goes wrong, he is johnny on the spot with a solution and good timing. Like most caper films, a lot goes wrong here.   So we get to see him improvise and take advantage of his bad luck and turn it around.

J.K. Simmons is in the movie and while not the bad guy, he plays a pretty unlikable fellow pretty well. His story gets a bit of a nice resolution which satisfies a old family debt that you won’t remember was there from early in the movie. Giovanni Ribisi is playing a patented scumbag character that he can do so well. He does not get to do much more than glower though because in the long run there are other issues that the set up wants us to be looking for. There are a couple of unbelievable outcomes in the movie that may be tempered because the audience has a stake in some of these characters, and I guess it makes the resolution more palatable, but the film loses any real tough guy veneer as a consequence. It is Hollywood action that we are getting, not some indie that wants us to suffer for our entertainment. Ben Foster is getting to be a stereotype in this kind of movie and he should be careful because he may end up pigeonholed in this part for the rest of his career. I was surprised to see Lukas Haas from “Witness” as one of the crew and Walberg’s brother. He and Walberg  play off of each other pretty well in some intense scenes set in Panama City.

There are a couple of schools of thought about crime movies, one says that we should go ahead and accept the anti-hero as our character and use that as our passage through the story. The other sees these characters as a morality play that warns us of the consequences of living a bad life. I wish more people saw “Scarface” as the morality tail it is supposed to be rather than the hero worshiped scum bag that today’s “gangsta” culture has made it. This movie does make contact with the criminal world look unpleasant, but of course it gives a a resolution that is pure Hollywood wish fulfillment. It is not a big idea movie, it is a well made thriller with the requisite hard ass dialogue to sustain the modern audience. I had a giant Coke Zero and a box of Junior Mints to go with this Big Mac, you might like it better with something salty, but you will be satisfied if not really balanced with this movie meal.

The Grey

When I first saw the poster for the movie, and then the trailer, I thought “The Grey” referred to the wolf that is tracking Liam Neeson throughout the movie. Having seen the film, I now feel the title is a bit more ambiguous, just as the color is somewhere between black and white, the subject here is really the middle ground between having a life or giving up on life. This is a man versus nature story, but it is not just an action flick. There is some thoughtful mediation on what makes us human and what life is worth in the long run. It sometimes runs into cliche, but it is never boring and at least the film makers were trying to say something while entertaining us.

At the center of the movie is the great Liam Neeson, an actor I first noticed way back in “Excalibur” in 1981. He has been known as a dramatic actor primarily for films like “Schindler’s List” and “Michael Collins”, but I know that he was always an action guy since he is Darkman. Three years ago in the movie “Taken”, he laid claim to the mantle of action badass, and each January since then we have been rewarded with an action loaded film. This movie is solid and it also contains what may be Neeson’s best work on screen. It is a physical role to be sure, but he gets many chances to show us what is in a man’s heart and head as well as his hands. There is a scene early on, where he confronts a dying man, he does not coddle him, he does not lie to him, he tells the truth in a way that all people who respect life want us to feel. Later in the movie he gets a chance to back up his words with deeds, but that one quiet scene and his gentile and serious voice go a long way in showing us that the alpha is not necessarily the biggest bully but can be the one with the biggest heart.

In the 1970s, I saw Richard Harris as “A Man Called Horse” and as the “Man in the Wilderness”. He was the king of determination against the elements back then. Neeson takes over this role and lives it to it’s fullest. There are not huge surprises in the movie. Those of you who watch the trailer know that it basically pits a group of survivors of a plane crash, against a pack of wolves defending their territory. To complicate matters the battle takes place in the frozen wilderness of Alaska, so the threat of death does not come just from the lupine adversaries but the weather itself. Neeson’s character doesn’t know everything, but he has the common sense that others in the situation don’t always show. He also has a strange determination to continue to fight because as we see early in the film, he is ambivalent about continuing to simply exist. None of the guys who survive the crash is a sniveling coward, but some of them have given up and some feel so frustrated by their circumstances that they become a pain in the ass. We don’t get to know them as well as we could because the story keeps pushing us forward, and the small bits of character have to come from very brief moments.

The special effects are harrowing in the plane crash and creepy at night as the band is stalked by the pack. There are some pretty gruesome deaths, which make the story all the more frighting because they are rendered in a very realistic way. It almost makes you glad for those characters who are lost without the violence of having their throats ripped out by wolves. There are a couple of scenes in which man is pitted against man, but it never comes to a violent confrontation, just an emotional one. There is very little doubt that the stronger spirit here is the one that drives our involvement with the story. Each of the actors in the final group gets a chance to show what they are capable of as performers. I was impressed by the quiet work of Dallas Roberts and the more flamboyant performance of Frank Grillo. Both of these guys are supporting actors that should work more in more prominent roles.

I don’t know how everyone else will feel about the way the story goes. Looking back over the set up it seems the right resolution, but it may be confounding to many. The moral principles that crop up at times may seem like they are mocking the universe and God, but in the long run it is more complex than that. Each man’s spirit is freed in a manner that befits the situation. Neeson, being the main character gets the strongest spiritual journey, and in the long run it is the one that is most satisfying. There is nothing of cliche in his actions, and the dilemma of “the grey” is resolved very effectively.