WHEN IT COMES to action movies, there's a thin, sinewy line between awesome and ridiculous, with the deciding factor often being the filmmaker's refusal to blink. (Sam Peckinpah and Tony Scott have both made movies that end with gunfights. They are not the same.) The Grey, the latest contribution to the halls of gonad cinema from director Joe Carnahan (Narc, Smokin' Aces), is a brawny, often majestic survivalist saga that can't quite work up the resolve to let its images drive the story. Although the primal force of its central conflict is something to behold—when it's cooking, it's the most compelling man vs. nature movie since William Friedkin's Sorcerer—it ultimately ends up feeling rather self-conscious about its own two-fisted bleakness.

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The script, by Carnahan and Ian Mackenzie Jeffers (based on the latter's short story), has a premise straight out of a vintage men's adventure magazine: After a horrific plane crash, a dwindling number of no-account Alaskan pipeliners (led by Liam Neeson's laconic rifleman) must make their way out of the blizzardy wilderness while being pursued by a vengeance-minded pack of wolves. (That isn't rain outside, it's Chuck Bronson and Lee Marvin drooling in heaven.) Neeson makes for an ideal man of action—by turns compassionate, resourceful, fatalist, and absolutely ruthless—backed by able support from Frank Grillo and James Badge Dale, respectively, as the most hot-headed and sensible members of the team. As for the wolves, Carnahan wisely goes the Jaws route, mixing brief sightings with heaps of hackle-raising implied menace. (There's a shivery bit involving eyes in the darkness that somehow manages to evoke both Bugs Bunny and Werner Herzog.)

As the situation grows increasingly dire, however, The Grey's purity of vision starts to waver a bit, becoming less existentially terse and more pretentiously long-winded, with a number of starkly beautiful set pieces marred by some overly on-the-nose dialogue. That said, there's more than enough genuinely terrific stuff here—an early scene between Neeson and a mortally wounded fellow passenger would make even Hemingway grunt in the affirmative—to forgive the occasional jarring bout of pontificating about the infinite. Viewers, prepare to grow hair where there was no hair before.