Severed limbs, evil poachers, and a gigantic killer grizzly bear – oh my! That’s exactly what Saw V director David Hackl aims to deliver in his new animalistic thriller, Into The Grizzly Maze, and he certainly doesn’t fail. The film wastes little time introducing viewers to a massive, angry bear who doesn’t take kindly to illegal hunters invading its home turf, so he/she decides to get revenge through his/her own series of grotesque murders. For every action, there’s an equal and opposite reaction, but when you screw with Mother Nature, that reaction is usually a HELL of a lot worse than normal. Mess with the bull, you get the horns – or in this case, you get the bear claws.
James Marsden and Thomas Jane star as a pair of estranged brothers with a spotty past. After Rowan (Marsden) found himself thrown in jail for killing a man, Beckett was forced to deal with the family drama it caused, which makes their reunion less than loving. Rowan claims he’s returned to his Alaskan home to pay proper respect to his deceased father in “The Grizzly Maze,” but Beckett suspects there’s more to his sibling’s motivation. He doesn’t have time to deal with any shady business though, because a murderous bear sends the locals into a tizzy when dead bodies start turning up. Beckett demands his commanding officer let him capture the bear alive, but after running into the woods to first locate his wife, a local tracker named Douglas (Billy Bob Thorton) is called upon to take down the bear for good. But this ain’t your av-er-age bear, as these wandering woodsmen soon find out.
Into The Grizzly Maze (formerly Grizzly, which was formerly Endangered, which was formerly Red Machine) is more about the action than it is the chase. Adam MacDonald already went the slow-burn, cat-and-mouse route with his intense survival story, Backcountry, but what the director lacked in constant brutality, Hackl embraces with open arms. It’s the juicy carnage you’d except from a Saw alumn, where body parts are strewn across lumberjacking territories like the grizzly meant to leave a message. This is the type of “When Animals Attack” movie that’s all about the violence, and from shots of a severed arm still grasping onto its chainsaw, to Billy Bob’s gnarly facial wound, Hackl brings the thunder whenever his grizzly launches into attack mode.
This constant barrage of woodland terror subtracts from the film’s overall tension, which is bothersome because the grizzly is such a monstrous foe. Writers Guy Moshe and J.R. Reher fall into a pattern of bringing out their bearish brutalizer whenever Rowan or Beckett have too long of a conversation, but it’s frenzied and without warning. This works sometimes, resulting in a quick jolt of energy, but so much more could be achieved atmospherically by having the bear stalking in the background, waiting to pounce while delaying the inevitable. Into the Grizzly Maze is fast-paced, furious, and aggressively action-minded, but the danger in the maze comes more with shock value, and a lacking sense of looming dread.
Hackl’s cast does plenty to keep audiences somewhat invested in the human elements of Into The Grizzly Maze, as Marsden and Jane banter and fight like two pitted brothers would. Piper Perabo joins the duo as Beckett’s deaf wife, Michelle, and Michaela McManus tags along as Rowan’s former love interest, Kaley. The foursome work together and struggle for survival like any hunting party would, with special recognition going to Perabo’s restricted performance during scenes where she’s forced to emote true fear without having a full grasp on vocal outcries.
We certainly can’t forget Billy Bob Thorton, who plays a smug, cocky huntsman that can only be described as the wily veteran. There surely aren’t any standouts amidst Beckett’s rag-tag hunting pack, but most parties involved find fear and heroism in this twisted, bloody maze.
Of course, the film’s biggest star is Hackl’s lumbering, brutish bear (played by Bart the Bear). He’s a domineering son-of-a-bitch with a guttural roar, and his paws are bigger than a man’s head. When charging at any one of the characters, there’s a brilliant “Oh Shit!” moment of acceptance seen in the eyes of each victim – a helpless realization that their day is about to get insurmountably worse. But once the bear pounces on its prey, Hackl is forced to blend CGI with reality, since the actors couldn’t have a real bear smacking them around. This creates a flurry of dizzying tumbles that obviously reveals the actor and bear are in two different places, and a strange sloppiness overtakes what should be a vicious portrayal of gnashing jowls and frantic survivalism. I’m all for the safety of Marsden and company, but these non-practical close-ups stick out like a digitized sore thumb.
The highlight reel of deaths will present enough natural carnage for some viewers to enjoy, but there’s something missing from Into The Grizzly Maze. Most fingers point to the lack of predatory wit, as Hackl turns his grizzly into an enraged killing machine. There’s a full-force commitment to shredding as much flesh as possible, and with that type of filmmaking in mind, again, Hackl succeeds with flying colors (mostly red). If that’s all you’re craving, this forest is full of all the blood-soaked atrocities you could ask for – just don’t expect anything more.
Into The Grizzly Maze is fast-paced enough for gorehounds to enjoy, but those in favor of a more cat-and-mouse hunt must know that Hackl is going more for gory kills than atmospheric tension.