A scowling Liam Neeson looks particularly unhappy on the poster for the The Ice Road, and who can blame him? The actor, who recently turned 69, is working harder than ever for his money, in this case enduring subfreezing temperatures and even a dip into icy waters for director-screenwriter Jonathan Hensleigh’s thriller premiering on Netflix. Yes, Neeson has found a very successful niche as a rugged and distinctly mature action star, but at this point it’s easy to imagine that he’d much prefer a wider range of roles.
Nonetheless, the actor has an admirable work ethic, and he brings it to the fore in this film, in which he plays an ice road trucker on a dangerous mission to transport rescue equipment to save trapped diamond miners in northern Canada. It all goes down pretty much as you’d expect, especially coming from the screenwriter of such cinematic thrill rides as Armageddon and Die Hard With a Vengeance. Unfortunately, this effort, clearly inspired by the French classic The Wages of Fear (and its terrific American remake, Sorcerer), isn’t even as entertaining as a typical episode of the History Channel’s Ice Road Truckers.
The Ice Road
Gets thin quickly.
It doesn’t help that the by-the-numbers screenplay feels predictable from the first moment to the last. The storyline revolves around Mike (Neeson), who responds to an urgent plea to drive one of several big rigs across a rapidly melting ice road. Joining him in the risky endeavor are the team’s hard-boiled organizer, Goldenrod (Laurence Fishburne); Mike’s younger brother Gurty (Marcus Thomas), a first-rate mechanic suffering from aphasia as the result of a war injury; young tough-as-nails Native American woman Tantoo (Amber Midthunder, convincingly badass), for whom the mission is personal, since her brother is one of the imperiled miners; and Varnay (Benjamin Walker, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), a corporate lackey who may as well have “Traitorous Villain” stamped on his forehead.
Every once in a while, the scene shifts to the miners, who spend their precious few hours left before dying engaging in a series of tedious arguments. The lack of dramatic urgency is particularly frustrating since one of them is played by Holt McCallany, whose riveting performance in Netflix’s Mindhunter seemed to indicate that he would move on to better roles than this.
Other than physically, Neeson, wearing a plaid winter jacket as if he were born in it, doesn’t exactly do any heavy lifting here. His character does have one defining trait, namely the ability to knock a person out cold with a single punch, as he demonstrates early on when a fellow worker has the temerity to call Gurty a “retard.” (And speaking of Gurty, was it really necessary for him to have a beloved pet mouse, as if he were auditioning to play Lennie in a regional theater production of Of Mice and Men?)
Needless to say, it doesn’t take very long for things to go wrong on the mission, with mechanical failures, breaking ice and avalanches, resulting from both natural and engineered causes, putting all of the major characters in peril. Hensleigh orchestrates the frigid cinematic mayhem competently, but none of the sequences have the necessary spectacular quality to make one regret not seeing the film on the big screen. There are, however, some very cool (pardon the pun) shots seemingly photographed from underneath the ice.
The Ice Road ironically proves most interesting not in its elaborate action set pieces, but rather with such details as why all the truckers place bobblehead dolls on their dashboards (no spoilers here). Of course, for tidbits like that, you might as well be watching the History Channel.