The Ice Road (2021)
This mission is on thin ice.
Another year, another couple of Liam Neeson actioners. Having already starred in The Marksman earlier in 2021, the 69-year-old star is back for his second outing, this time embracing the winter chill; heck, he must be used to it by now with both The Grey (2011) and Cold Pursuit (2019) under his belt. His latest heist-thriller, The Ice Road, can be best described as a cross between National Geographics’ documentary series Ice Road Truckers (2007-17) and Henri-Georges Clouzot’s classic French thriller The Wages of Fear (1953), the latter centering around a couple of truckies tasked with driving nitroglycerine through treacherous mountains to extinguish a nasty fire. Directed by Jonathan Hensleigh, The Punisher (2004), The Ice Road is a serviceable if unremarkable action-thriller, delivering what fans of the Taken-star have come to expect, i.e., gunfire, double crossings, avalanches, and even an element of revenge! Just like last year’s Greyhound, it’ll probably be one of your dad’s favorite films of the year.
When a gas explosion in a diamond mine in Manitoba, Canada, traps a bunch of workers underground, a rescue mission is mounted to save them before the deadly methane gas that’s seeping into the cavern takes their lives. With only thirty-six hours of oxygen left, a convoy of three trucks is assembled to deliver three wellheads, which are impossible to transport by air, to the area to free the men.
To get the job done, a team is put together with a 200,000 dollar pay-cheque split between four truckers, who must travel across treacherous ice roads that could crack under the weight of their vehicles. Leading the risky endeavor is Jim Goldenrod (Laurence Fishburne), who arranges a reliable bunch of drivers to help him out. He enlists a troublemaking Native American woman named Tantoo (Amber Midthunder), whose brother Cody (Martin Sensmeier) is stuck in the mine. Then there’s North Dakota truck driver Mike McCann (Liam Neeson), who’s unable to hold steady employment due to his temper and his need to care for his mechanic brother Gurty (Marcus Thomas), an Iraqi war veteran suffering from PTSD and aphasia. They’re also joined by Tom Varnay (Benjamin Walker), a representative of the company that owns the mine, who comes along for insurance/risk assessment purposes.
Written and directed by Hensleigh, whose writing credits include 1995’s Die Hard with a Vengeance and 1998’s Armageddon, The Ice Road is a capable thriller that does a good job of racking up tension, even if filmmakers play it a bit too straight. With that said, Hensleigh throws in several dangerous obstacles, which our drivers must contend with; the roads are basically off-limits seeing as it’s springtime and the ice on this hazardous stretch is thinning; the drivers cannot stop because of the weight of their big rigs; they also must drive at a steady pace — if they’re too slow, the ice will crack, if they’re too fast they’ll create pressure waves which will break the ice. Nonetheless, let’s just say that things don’t exactly go according to plan, and our protagonists not only wind up battling the harsh elements that surround them, but crooked organizations and hired killers as well. The movie is at its best when it’s focusing on survival, loyalties, greed, and corruption and gets sillier when it goes down the usual Liam-Neeson-punching-people route.
Filmmaker Jonathan Hensleigh switches back and forth between the strained drivers and the imperiled miners, who are trying to figure out the cause of the methane blast. Irrespective, it’s hard to care too much whether the drivers succeed or not, mainly because the miners they’re trying to rescue have little to no personality, and it’s difficult to distinguish who’s who given their dimly lit underground surroundings. Generally, though, characterization is as thin as the ice our drivers are trekking, but performers do well in bringing a semblance of humanity to their characters. Liam Neeson does his usual grizzled thing here, grunting his way through his scenes in a puffy winter jacket, then dodging bullets and beating up bad guys to win the day. Still, he’s a skilled performer and does a lot of the heavy lifting — so too does the always-reliable Fishburne, whose role is unfortunately relatively brief.
Amber Midthunder, Hell or High Water (2016), is memorable as the feisty Tantoo, a hard-ass female driver who’s bailed out of prison for the gig, whilst Marcus Thomas, Drowning Mona (2000), is rather sweet as Mike’s disabled brother Gurty, who travels around with his pet mouse. Holt McCallany, Wrath of Man (2021), is wasted as Lampard, one of the trapped miners finding it tough to breathe; so too is veteran actor Matt McCoy, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1992), whose portrayal of General Manager George Sickle is utterly forgettable.
Production values are mostly good, despite the flick having a straight-to-DVD flavor about it. Cinematographer Tom Stern, Changeling (2008), does great work in capturing the chilly wintery surroundings of far north Canada, whilst the score by Max Aruj, Crawl (2019), elevates suspense. Sadly, the visual effects look a tad cheap and distract from the action, mainly in the flick’s third act. Overall, though, while it’s far from rating as a classic on the Liam-Neeson-meter, The Ice Road is a perfectly watchable distraction and a cool (pun intended), undemanding way to waste a Saturday afternoon. Who knows, you might even learn a thing or two about ice road truckers.
3 / 5 – Good
Reviewed by Dan Cachia (Mr. Movie)