Written by: Jack Reher & Guy Moshe
Directed by: David Hackl
Starring: Thomas Jane, James Marsden, and Billy Bob Thornton
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
"You're damn right it's a bear--a big, nasty son of a bitch."
I know what you’re thinking: you see a title like Into the Grizzly Maze and start dreading it. “Oh shit, not another one of these,” you mutter. But even a cursory glance beyond the silly title brings hope: its incongruously great cast features Tom Jane, Billy Bob Thornton, James Marsden, Scott Glenn, and Piper Perabo, plus Saw alumnus David Hackl is behind the camera to direct. Neither Syfy nor The Asylum are anywhere in sight. You start to feel pretty decent about this one, and that optimism proves to be mostly well-founded: Into the Grizzly Maze is the sort of totally competent, solidly-made creature feature that it would be nice to see more of.
Set in a rural Alaska town in the shadow of a thick, isolated wilderness, the film centers on Rowan (Marsden) and Beckett (Jane), a pair of estranged brothers reunited under inauspicious circumstances when the former returns home after doing time, immediately brawls with a pimp, and winds up in police custody. Beckett is one of the deputies called to the scene, and he decides to give his brother a break, though he isn’t too thrilled with Rowan’s decision to head into the woods and pour one out for their recently deceased old man. Though the two hunted the area as children, Beckett has hung up his rifle in the name of conservatism alongside his deaf wife (Perabo). Beyond that, he’s concerned with the rash of aggressive bear attacks in the area, as a couple of poachers and their guide have gone missing and are presumably dead.
Viewers don’t have to presume: by the time Beckett attempts to warn his brother, we’ve already seen the asshole poachers get their shit wrecked by a giant bear. It’s really (ahem) grisly stuff, brought to life with practical gore and a convincing creature. The practicality might as well come with a sigh of relief: sure, Into the Grizzly Maze obvious features its share of digital embellishments, but, for the most part, this isn’t one of those SyFy efforts (well, "efforts") where a terribly rendered animal juts into the frame and carries off a victim, thus robbing the film of any schlocky point whatsoever. Into the Grizzly Maze doesn’t exactly wallow in schlock, but a fine assortment of severed and impaled limbs is scattered about when Hackl needs to indulge the visceral danger of the situation at hand.
Sometimes you wish Hackl and company had opted to plunge into the more splatter-filled possibilities, especially when they’re dealing with the motherfucking Jason Voorhees of killer bears. Heralded as the maze’s alpha predator, the enormous grizzly has become even more territorial because years of human activity nearby have disrupted the natural food chain—and now it’s pissed. For a brief moment, Into the Grizzly Maze attempts to be about something by hinting at these environmental concerns. In the grand tradition of on-the-nose 70s nature-run-amok films, this and the tension between poaching and conservation are mostly window dressing, there to give the illusion of heft to what should be a Friday the 13th movie with bear claws instead of a machete.
With such a large cast of characters eventually stranded in the maze, the potential for carnage is high, and this almost preternatural grizzly haunts their every step. For a further stab at legitimacy, Into the Grizzly Maze considers them to be more than victims, however, and invests in the drama unfolding between them, particularly the frayed relationship between the two brothers. The questions it raises (chiefly: “will these two be able to work together to survive?”) aren’t impertinent so much as they’re perfunctory; for a film that insists on so much drama, there is very little of it. Attempting to generate some in lieu of leaning on pure schlock is admirable, but the execution amounts to an overqualified cast attempting to elevate a mound of clichés.
To its credit, the cast is game, even if Marsden seems a little unconvincing as a rugged ex-con-with-a-heart-of-gold. Jane has an edge that would have made him better suited for that role, but he sands it off to play a man whose chief quality is decency under fire. If there’s an interesting conflict to be found in the film, it’s his internal struggle between his conservationist leanings and the realization that this bear has to be put down. That struggle is coaxed by Thornton’s deranged Ahab figure, a whacked out hunter whose encounter with a grizzly years before has put him at war with the beasts. Walking in stride with a white stallion at his side, Thornton is lively and absurd enough, though drawing the obvious comparisons to Robert Shaw’s Quint is difficult since this is much more of a one-note performance: Quint’s death finds pathos despite its inevitability, whereas this character’s courting of death feels more like a deserved, almost rousing grace note once the film hits is stride as a thriller.
Hackl’s direction and the effects budget’s willingness to meet the scripted needs (save for some truly awful CGI fire, a construct that, yes, needs to die in a fire) messily gel to keep Into the Grizzly Maze on the right side of ridiculous. Some of the action is roughly stitched together, but at least it is functionally joined rather than haphazardly pasted junk. While its outcome may never be in doubt and its clichés dutifully trod through, it features just enough icy, dreary atmosphere, disposable characters (bootlegging loggers are not long for this or any other world), and harrowing sequences for leads. And, in this genre “just enough” sometimes feels like more than enough considering how far the bar’s been lowered in recent years. Clearing it barely involves simply stepping over it at this point.
After spending a few years lost in a maze of distribution that coaxed a number of title changes (Red Machine, Endangered, and Grizzly were previous working titles), Into the Grizzly Maze finally arrives on DVD courtesy of a barebones disc from Sony (unless one counts trailers for other upcoming releases as special features). At least the presentation—like the film itself—is resoundingly fine and functional, particularly the rowdy, aggressive 5.1 surround track. Mustering any more enthusiasm for Into the Grizzly Maze requires one to keep grading it on a curve and with backhanded compliments: in a vacuum, it’s a familiar man-vs-nature ordeal drowning in toxic masculinity and clichés, sort of like The Grey without the gravitas.
Relative to most of its company, however, Into the Grizzly Maze’s remarkability hinges on it simply being earnest but unremarkable rather than a purposeful disaster. Admitting that feels like something is broken—this is a sub-genre of films that has almost forced me to rewire my brain’s concept of cinema. I almost feel compelled to vigorously defend something like Into the Grizzly Maze simply because it's trying very hard, which is more than you can say about its peers.
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