Most of us have had no problem buying into Liam Neeson as an ex-special forces tough guy with a particular set of bone-cracking and head-shotting skills. So seeing the 69-year-old Irishman as a crusty North Dakota truck driver is easy-peasy. The new Netflix action thriller “The Ice Road” taps into much of what makes Neeson such a fun and engaging action star while also reminding us of that often used formula that makes many of his movies feel like more of the same.
“The Ice Road” thrusts Neeson into the real world of ice road trucking where drivers take 65,000 lb. vehicles over stretches of frozen lakes and rivers where ice is often less than 30 inches thick. Considered by some to be suicide missions, the truck drivers make essential cargo runs across these treacherous routes known as ice roads often with fatal outcomes. Written and directed by Jonathan Hensleigh, “The Ice Road” plugs Neeson into a story that’s set in this real and dangerous environment but full of familiar genre tropes.
Neeson plays a seasoned trucker named Mike McCann who loses his job after standing up for his challenged PTSD suffering brother Gurty (Marcus Thomas). Needing work, he gets wind of a call for ice road drivers in Winnipeg. A serious methane explosion has caused a mine to collapse and the only hope for the miners trapped inside is if a wellhead can be delivered before they run out of oxygen. He’s hired by Jim Goldenrod (Laurence Fishburne) who scrambles to find capable drivers to accompany him on the “rescue mission” to Northern Manitoba.
Mike, Gurty who happens to be an ace mechanic, Jim, and an unruly local named Tantoo (Amber Midthunder) are joined by the mine company’s smarmy insurance rep Varnay (Benjamin Walker) and set out in a three-truck convoy. They’re employing what’s called “technical redundancy” which in this scenario means three trucks carrying the same cargo leave in hopes that at least one makes it to their destination. Told you this was dangerous business.
The first half deals with the practical dangers of their journey both mechanically and environmentally. I makes for some pretty fascinating stuff. It’s the second half where things come unglued. A cartoonishly cold company scumbag played by Matt McCoy will go to great lengths to hide his indiscretions including sabotaging the convoy and leaving his miners to suffocate. So we end up with a back-end full of half-baked action that’s only entertaining in its absurdity. Meanwhile none of the characters are given much depth. We get a taste of Mike and Gurty but everyone else is just story filler. Even the always dependable Holt McCallany can’t make his mine supervisor character interesting.
“The Ice Road” is very much a middle-of-the-road thriller in Neeson’s catalog. It starts off teasing an interesting disaster flick but devolves into a sub-par action movie that can’t quite stay on the road. At the same time it can’t steer clear of predictability. You’ll see everything coming a mile away and from its earliest scenes you’ll figure out how it all ends. Still, even a middling Neeson film has its entertainment value and this one is no different. But there are so many ways this could have been better. “The Ice Road” is now streaming on Netflix.