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‘The Grey’ / ‘Facing Ali’

When bloodlust permeates the hearts of men

by Kaori Shoji

The Grey” could be a welcome sight for those of us panting in summer’s dog days of heat and humidity: miles of ice and snow stretching way into a horizon that merges with a forbidding, indeterminate sky. But in the next second, you realize this is a desperate tale of survival, unfolding in an Alaskan no-man’s land.

Directed by Joe Carnahan (“The A-Team”), “The Grey” — a nonstop, no-holds-barred action thriller conducted in 3 meters of snow and pitting the wits of a handful of men against a pack of starving wolves — is not for the faint of heart, and surely not an escape hatch for viewers looking for a little respite from reality. What you get is an unrelenting two hours of gut-wrenching suspense combined with hellish despair.

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin once talked about shooting wolves from a helicopter and was mightily booed for her blatant disregard for environmentalism. But “The Grey” will have you pining for the sight of a chopper loaded with rifles.

Lead character John Ottway (Liam Neeson) needs such fortifications badly, after a plane carrying himself and other workers from an Alasakan oil rig goes down in the middle of an icy plain, and ravenous wolves immediately circle the wreckage.

Luckily John had been working as a wolf-hunter for the oil company (every fanged animal venturing on the grounds was fair game) and now every shred of his knowledge and experience are called for, as he and seven other survivors pick themselves up and face the fact that help is not arriving anytime soon. John yells out to make for the tree line; the others have no choice but to obey, and then to fashion themselves into wolf-killing warriors.

What sets “The Grey” apart from other films in the survival genre (“Alive” is an obvious reference that’s mentioned in the dialogue) is that as the enemy, the wolves have no personality and no agenda apart from sheer hunger. On the other side, the men are unscrupulous and probably dangerous, all heavy-duty misfits. These are not noble or nice guys, and all have hurt their loved ones, walked out on their children or damaged their wives and girlfriends. What keeps them going in the fight against the wolves, however, is their memories of relationships and familial bonds.

John, especially, keeps his sanity with thoughts of his ex-wife, though he’s fully aware that even if he does make it back to civilization, his chances of seeing her again are close to zilch. Still, his recollections of the time he spent with her humanizes his character, lending a sense of dignity to an otherwise purely animal undertaking — and making “The Grey” a film that will stick with you for some time.

Some men conduct their lives as one endless fight, and it’s hard to say whether conditions in the boxing ring are all that different from what unfolds on the icy tundra of “The Grey.” In “Facing Ali,” fighters recall their matches against “The Greatest,” boxing icon Muhammad Ali, and in doing so they reveal how they had defined themselves as fighters.

Directed by Pete McCormack, it’s a moving documentary remarkable for its utter lack of sentiment, crafted from archival footage and interviews with the likes of Ali’s rivals George Foreman, Joe Frazier, George Chuvalo and Ron Lyle.

It’s curious to see these aging former fighters (10 in total) speak in interviews and then see footage of them in their glory days. Canadian heavyweight Chuvalo was known for having “the hardest chin in boxing history,” and Ali himself described Chuvalo as the “toughest guy I ever fought.”

Chuvalo never got to beat Ali, but he didn’t get knocked out either. With glee, he describes the first match he had with Ali, which landed the latter in the hospital despite winning the match. “But me, I went out dancing with my wife!”

Chuvalo’s words are painful and poignant: His wife and son each later committed suicide, and he lost two other sons to drug abuse. Chuvalo glosses over his own personal tragedies to deliver insight into what made Ali what he was, and the particular ruthless nature of professional boxing: “You can lose your life, giving the people what they want to see.”

Others testify to Ali’s own ruthlessness, and news footage shows how he described his black opponents with the racial slur “Uncle Tom” more than once.

One who suffered a lot of abuse was Frazier. Strangely, the black fans supported Ali over Frazier, even though the latter came from a tougher ghetto background and pulled himself out of poverty rung by bloody rung. This should have earned him street cred at least, but somehow he always came up short on fan support. As for Ali, he showed no mercy toward Frazier, in the ring or outside it.

Bloodlust for fighting is something beyond reason, and as strong as the desire to live, if only for another day. There’s a nice a thought to chew over on a restless summer night.