For an hour or so, "The Grey" is truly frightening and authentic; after that, it derails for several reasons, some of which will be hard to discuss without spoiling things.
The film stars Liam Neeson, still cashing in on the action-star status he attained with "Taken" at the unlikely age of 56.
Now nearly 60, he's at his peak in this bone-rattling tale about survivors of an Alaskan plane crash fighting for their lives against cold, fear and wolves.
In this film image released by Open Road Films Liam Neeson is shown in a scene from “The Grey.”
With masterful writing, acting and direction, "The Grey" is often terrifying - and for much of its length, utterly convincing.
The survivors are oil-refinery roughnecks; Neeson plays a sharp-shooter who protects them from rampaging wolves during their outdoor work.
At first, one is put off by their abrasive language, cynicism and hell-in-a-handcart lifestyle; it's hard to see how the film will stir up sufficient sympathy about their plight.
But this question is swiftly resolved in an astonishing early moment when one of them slowly dies from wounds sustained in the wreck. It's among the most realistic, riveting and memorable death scenes I've ever witnessed; like much of the film's first half, it doesn't have a false note anywhere.
Along these lines, "The Grey" achieves a minor triumph by weaving weighty philosophical reflections into its tale without sounding preachy or artificial - no mean feat, considering the earthy, hard-bitten characters.
The issue is whether God exists, either to help the men or at the very least, to welcome them into some more hospitable place when they die (which they do with gut-wrenching regularity). Most of them insist that this life is all we have: they are on their own, and no one will help them.
It doesn't make for a very happy movie.
Yet there are moments of beauty, of acknowledging that the existence these men had was worthwhile, and worth getting back to.
As Neeson's character puts it: "Those things from your life - whatever they might be - make you want the next minute more than the last. They make you fight for it."
This thoughtful undertone gives an extra edge to the action scenes, some of which had me literally squirming in my seat; and the keen authenticity is greatly heightened by stunning location filming - mostly in British Columbia.
Toward the end, the realism lapses, especially during the crossing of a gorge, which does not work either logically or visually.
There are other decisions that didn't make sense, and the episode in the water struck me, quite simply, as too deadly to survive.
Likewise, I don't think many viewers will care for the ending, though it certainly comports with the film's overall tone.
For the most part, "The Grey" is an effective change from glitzy action films with colorful superheroes who extricate themselves from any situation; it's a grey film, all right - but a realistic one.