SOMETHING ODD has happened in the space between "Underworld" and "Ghost Rider" sequels - a halfway original action movie has sneaked into theaters.

The culprit is writer/director Joe Carnahan, who did an end run around Hollywood to make "The Grey," a startlingly grim story about crash survivors in a snowy tundra alone, unarmed, and hunted by wolves.

It's a tight thriller helped a great deal by on-location shooting (in British Columbia) that gives the movie a very vivid sense of place and of winter peril.

The movie is also distinguished by its pitiless rate of attrition.

No supporting actor is safe.

Liam Neeson stars as a hunter employed at an arctic oil patch to shoot wolves that prey upon the workers in the field.

This appears to be a massive helping of baloney - wolves have killed exactly two people in North America in the last century - and I suspect "The Grey" will teach you as much about wolves as "Rango" did about lizards.

But I think we understand that Carnahan is using wolves as a symbol of something larger, and that these early scenes exist to frame Neeson as the alpha male (yes, he's a lone wolf) who assumes command after the evacuating workers crash (a gruesomely spectacular sequence), beyond the reach of rescue, with little food, no weapons.

The movie offers the usual collection of survivor types - the clown, the writer, the family man, the believer, the cynic - but it offers something unusual in its sense of jeopardy, of looming death.

Carnahan, good for him, tries to something more complicated than the cartoon machismo he played around with in "Smokin' Aces."

Something that suggests he's read a little Jack London. Carnahan builds a narrative around the polar extremes of man versus nature, man versus his own nature, man versus the elements, hunter versus hunted.

It's an ambitious jump for Carnahan. Does he get there? Opinion will vary, but he's helped a great deal by hulking, granite-faced Neeson as the hunter-philosopher, the guy who explains death to doomed and dying men.

The actor's gravitas elevates scenes in which Carnahan makes slightly earnest comparisons between the pack behaviors of men and wolves.

It can be a little goofy. And yet you also feel Carnahan is on to something here, tapping into whatever fascinates us about shows like "Ice Road Truckers" or "Deadliest Catch."

And avoiding what alienates us from the hollow realms of CGI. Carnahan's wolves are fake, but at least they are animatronic.