In the wake of “Jaws” came a slew of long-unforgotten, unlamented imitators, among them a couple about ravenous bears, “Grizzly” (1976) and “Claws” (1977). Neither was any good, and neither is “Into the Grizzly Maze,” though its cast rivals that of the disaster movies of four decades ago.
The set-up is more complicated than the plot that follows. Rowan (James Marsden) returns to his Alaskan boyhood hometown to search for a missing friend, Johnny (Adam Beach), who’s gone missing in the forest. He immediately runs into trouble with the law, Sheriff Sully (Scott Glenn) and his deputy, Rowan’s own estranged brother Beckett (Thomas Jane), who’s also conservationist-minded. But the three men are effectively thrown together in a common enterprise when it appears that a couple of loggers have been killed by a bear gone bad (played, the credits inform us, by Bart the Bear, whose character name , according to buzz, was once Red Machine, which also served as one of the titles the picture has gone by). Sully also enlists the help of hard-as-nails hunter Douglass (Billy Bob Thornton), who goes into the woods solo to track down what he quickly determines to be “the bear I’ve been waiting for all my life.” The situation is made even more dire by the fact that Beckett’s wife Michelle (Piper Perabo, a wildlife photographer who happens to be deaf) is out in the forest.
The situation, it appears, isn’t entirely new for Rowan and Beckett: a brief prologue shows us them encountering a bear when they were out hiking as kids. But it’s different now, because when Beckett is the ultimate straight-arrow, Rowan—as we will eventually learn—is an ex-con who spent years in the pokey for killing a man during a robbery (though, of course, his action was misunderstood). Things are also murky because some illegal poaching has been going on, the cause, it’s suggested, for the bear’s being so “pissed off,” as Douglass puts it. So as the narrative picks up, Beckett and ME Kaley (Michaela McManus) set out into the woods while Sully stays behind; while searching for Johnny, Rowan finds Michelle just after she’s been accosted by the bear and they seek refuge together; and Douglass enters the chase by himself. (The “grizzly maze,” by the way, is an area so convoluted that even bears get lost there.)
Much of the next hour or so of the movie consists of following the various characters as they stumble around the forest, while cutaways to the bear show him lumbering around, growling. Occasionally there are close calls and injuries, but most of the action takes place off screen, with the remains of the animal’s earlier victims found by the trackers providing what are supposed to be the shock moments. In the last fifteen minutes director David Hackl (“Saw V”) finally goes for broke, pitting his surviving cast against the bear in a confrontation that goes on way too long, with multiple, and increasingly ludicrous, escapes from the animal’s jaws and claws (as well as reappearances by characters assumed to be dead). But at least here the movie gets down to the sort of man-against-beast action it’s been promising but not delivering; and considering the budgetary limitations, it’s reasonably well choreographed, even if the editing can’t camouflage all the imperfections.
The cast is certainly starrier than one ordinarily finds in this kind of B-movie, and they all do competent work, though the writing ensures that the characters remain paper-thin. Marsden gets the most demanding work-out, physically, but Perabo and McManus put up with a good deal as well, and Thornton provides his customary smug malevolence. Jane and Glenn, however, appear to be dozing much of the time, and Beach has little more than a cameo. The locations are impressive, and James Lipton’s cinematography suffuses them with glossy color, but Marcus Trumpp’s score doesn’t generate much excitement.
If you’re looking for a bear-centric film, may I recommend Werner Herzog’s documentary about strange, ill-fated outdoorsman Timothy Treadwell, “Grizzly Man”? It’s no conventional horror film, but it’s scarier than this run-of-the-mill “Jaws” on land potboiler—and thought-provoking, too.