Review by C.J. Bunce
Sometimes you need a good Liam Neeson movie, even if it’s a B-movie, or a direct-to-Netflix movie, because sometimes those movie have just enough–just enough Liam Neeson, or just enough action. Unfortunately The Ice Road is not a good Liam Neeson movie, nor is it even salvageable as an action movie. I wrote a mixed review for Liam Neeson’s Cold Pursuit (reviewed here), which looks very much like The Ice Road if you believe the promotional materials, but somehow it’s more like the painfully bad, also wintry Polar or Daughter of the Wolf in its writing and execution. It’s two years since Neeson stated he was done with making movies, and audiences will keep watching until he gets another right, and since then we’ve seen him in Men in Black: International, a great use of Neeson, plus he’s made four more movies with six more in production. His fans have a lot to look forward to. but if this is what Ice Road Truckers is about, I’m glad I’ve never seen it. So why doesn’t The Ice Road work?
Viewers can tell the difference between movies that had no chance at the theater and those that race to streaming platforms. This is the latter. You can tell the difference from the first visual effect, an explosion at a Manitoba, Canada, diamond mine, which traps two dozen men underground in the permafrost. It’s practically a video game effect, which pulls the viewer away from any thought that a real adventure lies ahead. The idea is that a giant 75,000 pound piece of mining equipment is needed to save the miners in 30 hours, but the only way to get the equipment there in April is to take it over the single, thin ice road route. So the rescue team finds the Skip Tyler of ice road trucking, played by Laurence Fishburne, who enlists three redundant trucks each saddled with the requisite life-saving chunk of mining-access equipment in the hopes that one truck will make it to the mine in time.
It so happens that Fishburne’s character has a sticky relationship with a young Cree woman named Tantoo, played by Amber Midthunder (Legion, Hell or High Water)–a high point of the movie–whose brother just so happens to be trapped in the mine. And Tantoo is happy to get rescued from jail to risk her life for her brother, and earn a quarter split of $200,000. Fishburne’s character leads the team in the first truck with Liam Neeson’s character, Mike McCann, and his brother Gurty, played by Marcus Thomas (Kill the Irishman).
Gurty is a veteran of the Iraq war, and his PTSD is so taxing that he presents more as a highly functioning person with autism. His wiring in his brain is such that his sentences are mangled, but his brother, and anyone who cares to listen, can figure out what he means with a little effort. He’s also a more-than-able mechanic.
The three trucks at the ready, another character is introduced, Benjamin Walker (Jessica Jones, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Slayer) as an insurance actuary who “must” come along for the suicide mission, and obviously the show’s villain–at least obviously to anyone who has ever watched a TV show or movie before. It turns out he was hired by the mine owners to sabotage this already unlikely to succeed rescue effort because the owners conned the miners into turning their life-saving methane gas censors off and the owners don’t want the Crown to find out. Yes, the script is that thin.
A more established director might have been able to save the film. It has dueling truck chase scenes which could have tapped the paced terror and action of Steven Spielberg’s Duel, as an example. When there is a chase of a big truck cab with parallel snowmobiles trying to gain entry, some humor could have been infused like in the tank chase in Raiders of the Lost Ark, or at least a satisfying crunch or soar off the cliff. The scope of the danger of ice roads isn’t presented visually until far into the movie, when we finally see a shot of the trucks from under the ice. The Ice Road is missing that breathlessness that a ticking clock picture like this needs–to be successful.
This is another good, small role for Fishburne, of the Passengers or Ant Man and The Wasp variety. He’s just underutilized here. Walker plays mostly a hired thug, so his casting for this role is odd, and he has very few lines in the film despite a lot of screen-time (how do you have an overly long fight scene with Neeson and never utter a word?). But Thomas and Midthunder’s characters could almost work–in another movie. Liam Neeson’s character is not likeable. He yells at his struggling brother. He quickly agrees to tie-up and restrain Tantoo on a whim. The role lacks that essential requirement for a character Neeson’s agent should always, always look for: McCann is not cool.
If you could get past the idea that the story isn’t preposterous, you might make it through the movie (at least this is more believable than Armageddon, except when a man drowns in freezing waters and is rescued to continue the journey without so much as putting dry clothes on). And the pet rat makes it to the end of the movie, so it has that going for it. Otherwise you’re better off getting your Neeson fix with Cold Pursuit or Taken or The Commuter. And if you want an emergency rescue B-movie, maybe try Cliffhanger, or up your game to something of substance like Apollo 13, Die Hard, Argo, or Extraction. Or try getting your trucker movie fix with Every Which Way But Loose, Smokey and the Bandit, Maximum Overdrive, Big Trouble in Little China, Convoy, or Duel.
This is one to skip. The Ice Road is now playing on Netflix.