While exhibiting a fire-powered badassery in each of his films, Liam Neeson is capable of holding an audience in a way that pretty much the entire cast of The Expendables have to pretend they can – which is why, probably, he’s not in the cast for the sequel, he’s just too damn good an actor. And in this case, he’s picked up a role that shows nothing new of his excellent, typecast-as-trustworthy-paternal-figure character that we’ve come to expect from him, but director Joe Carnahan has crafted a gripping story and deep enough character for him to really sink his teeth into. But he’s not the only one.
Stranded after a plane crash in the middle of snowy Alaska with a handful of survivors, Neeson plays Ottway, a skilled hunter who leads the group away from the crash and towards civilisation. Unfortunately, a pack of wolves have their scent and the beasts are quite happy to pick them off one-by-one. The clashes with the massive creatures are tense and terrific, leaving enough to the imagination that you’ll be gnawing away at your fingertips while a wolf is gnawing away at something else. The CGI may be a tad ropey but the performances by the cast are convincing enough; they’re scared, and that means that you’re bloody scared too.
Each player is a fully three-dimensional character, and instead of them all grating like chalk and cheese, they largely get along with few scuffles. Believable and lovable – even the slyer, drunker ones – you will them on even at their bleakest times, and their attitudes and beliefs come across almost effortlessly in each of the many conversations that you follow them through. Discussing everything from their last sexual encounter to whether or not they’ll be seeing pearly gates when they die out in the cold, they manage to turn the action/thriller into a philosophical drama, adding to the emotional thump that you get every time a survivor starts spitting blood.
Of course, being British, I feel obligated to talk about the weather but, for a change, I feel like it’s quite relevant. Setting up the landscape as a character in its own right – and a formidable one at that – you feel that the clock is permanently ticking towards their freezing demise, as blizzards sweep the terrain either making it tough to see the man trudging in front of the group or making a clearing to showcase the stunning surroundings. The atmosphere created by it adds another layer of tension and spiritualism.
While Neeson is the shining light, none of the other characters drift into the distance. A thrilling script heightens this well-worn story into a debate of life and death, and the excellent direction injects real terror into a film that comes thoroughly recommended.