"The Grey" yanked me upright in my seat. It is, even as melodramatic and sometimes implausible entertainment, the best studio movie in a long time. It follows the tradition of Jack London's man vs. nature survival stories, where hope is as fragile as a campfire in a blizzard.

Here seven Alaska oilfield workers face bleak odds when their plane crashes far from civilization, and near the den of a ferocious wolf pack. The film is unusually hard, tense, cruel, intelligent and straightforward. While you watch it, it entirely holds you. You quickly forget that it's just a movie, although as a movie, it's terrific.

Liam Neeson plays Ottway, a hunter hired by an oil company to keep predators away from its employees. When the crash survivors wrestle with their shock at finding themselves lost in the middle of nowhere, Ottway is the alpha male who barks the orders. When aggressive wolves venture close, he's the one who offers a plan of action. But the film gives us reasons to question his judgment. He is beset by painful memories of his departed wife, a broken man who must battle his suicidal urges for the others' sake.

The supporting characters are thoughtfully written and cleverly cast, the actors burrowing in deeply. They register as realistic individuals, not stereotypes. Frank Grillo is strong as a belligerent contrarian, Dermot Mulroney all but unrecognizable as a survivor yearning for his daughter. Each has his own reason for pressing ahead in the face of disaster, his own weaknesses and reserves of courage. Each has his own reaction to the sudden annihilating loneliness and fear. Indifferent fate treats them all as equals. "The Grey" is not the type of picture in which heroism is calculated to land buttered side up.

The challenges facing the men are primitive. Finding shelter. Making weapons. Traversing a canyon and crossing river rapids. The movie is almost documentary in its portrayal of hardship and hard work. "The Grey" is a harrowing adventure story, but it is more, an exploration of character as revealed in action.

There are problems with the film, but they are small in the overall scheme. A plane that goes down over land in the United States would have been tracked by radar and a rescue team would scramble immediately. It's very uncommon for wolves to attack humans. But the drama is worth the large suspension of disbelief.

This is a big step up for writer/director Joe Carnahan, working in virile style after the sophomoric guff of "The A Team." The camera is always where it needs to be, never belabors or over-dramatizes its subject, never strains for beauty or profundity. There is not a shot for its own sake in the picture, or one too arranged-looking, or dwelt on too long.

Neeson proves that a comfortably successful actor well on in his career can still be excitingly capable of further growth. I don't think the title of "The Grey" refers to the alpha timberwolf, but to Neeson's character. The film is never stronger than when it silently focuses on his weathered, wind-beaten face.