Fresh out of prison, Rowan (James Marsden) returns home to a small rural town near the mountain wilderness. He soon shares an awkward reunion with his estranged brother Beckett (Thomas Jane), a local deputy investigating a string of vicious bear attacks, triggered by the illegal hunting of bears. When Rowan ventures into the woods in search of a missing friend he ends up rescuing Beckett's deaf-mute conservationist wife, Michelle (Piper Perabo) from a snare and a killer grizzly. After the bear kills a female deputy, Beckett teams up with forensic scientist Kaley (Michaela McManus) to rescue his wife and brother. Meanwhile Sheriff Sully (Scott Glenn) tasks experienced though shady bear hunter Douglas (Billy Bob Thornton) with tracking and killing the errant grizzly. Everyone ends up lost in a notoriously impenetrable and disorienting neck of the woods known as the Grizzly Maze, with a vengeful, relentless bear dogging their trail.
Man versus bear movies either venture down the somewhat cerebral if slightly pretentious path of the David Mamet-scripted The Edge (1997) or else trot merrily down the low route of William Girdler's legendarily trashy Grizzly (1976). Into the Grizzly Maze falls squarely in the latter camp. Despite slightly more offbeat, if still shallow, characterizations and a halfhearted back-story, at heart it is a chest-thumping exploitation movie loaded with corny moments. Fake CG blood, ropey superimposed bear effects and salty comic book dialogue all add to the corny B-movie feel. To its credit the film makes an effort to take conservationist issues seriously by having the characters, Beckett especially, extremely reluctant to harm the bear even though it has claimed human lives. Co-screenwriters Guy Moshe and J.R. Reher admit that wrongful, indiscriminate animal slaughter is largely responsible for driving bears to attack human beings, even though they crouch such points within the eco-conspiracies of Billy Bob Thornton's would-be Quint from Jaws (1975). Yet even his suspect character admits the bear's murderous impulses are symptomatic of man's disrupting the natural cycle.
Those that prefer their wilderness adventure yarns lean and mean will find Into the Grizzly Maze too often loses momentum by dwelling on soapy drama. Equally viewers that appreciate a little depth to characters in these kinds of movies will note that by keeping things like goals and motivation so close to its vest the plot often winds up frustrating. A cast of overqualified actors do a solid job inhabiting characters that while deeper than the usual walking clichés that often inhabit these films are still not quite faceted enough. To their credit none of the characters act like idiots. Mindful of the dangerous situation they are in everyone keeps their cool and applies logic and reason to each new problem. For some reason poor, luckless Kaley suffers the most calamitous mishaps along the trail. Indeed Into the Grizzly Maze proves curiously old-fashioned in largely sidelining the women so that the male characters can play macho games in the woods.
David Hackl, a production designer on the Saw movies, handles the mechanics of a suspense film well enough. Nonetheless he does not quite pull off the bear attacks. A tense sequence with one character lost in the fog is nicely handled but the visceral climax is pure cornball pulp nonsense. Somewhere William Girdler is smiling.