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'The Grey' review: As if a few hungry wolves could mess with Liam Neeson

**1/2 (out of four)

If you’re on a plane that crashes in the middle of freezing, snow-covered Alaska, it helps to be traveling with a guy who knows both the “territorial zone” and “kill zone” of wolves. Feel free to ask this of the person sitting next to you before takeoff.

In “The Grey,” a blandly titled thriller that may come as a disappointment to diehard fans of “Dirty Dancing” star Jennifer Grey, the leadership and wolf-related knowledge of Ottway (Liam Neeson) takes much of the responsibility for protecting the handful of remaining oil rig employees. Of course, their reward for making it out of a terrifying, deafening crash is fighting cold, hunger and growling beasts that aren't nearly as funny as the wolves in “Twilight.”

Neeson, currently cornering the market on the “average guy driven to extremes” genre with movies like “Taken” and “Unknown,” brings weight to a man unafraid to admit he’s afraid. Yet Ottway’s expertise ultimately diffuses tension that director/co-writer Joe Carnahan (“The A-Team”) struggles to maintain. His sometimes-riveting, sometimes-contrived handling of a horrifying situation repeatedly forces you to take inventory of characters many will remember only as “the loudmouth,” “the jerk,” “the black guy,” “Dermot Mulroney,” “the quiet one” and “Liam Neeson.”

Take a wild guess who’s the last man standing.

A staring contest with a wolf may always look unintentionally funny. “The Grey” nevertheless effectively focuses on a group of guys—who surely deserve to take the “wolf pack” name from the “Hangover” dudes—confronting unthinkable challenges and wondering what (or who) will give them the strength to face uncertainty. That requires an awful lot when your friend was just chomped mid-pee.

Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Fridays at 7:30 a.m. on WCIU, the U

mpais@tribune.com. @mattpais

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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