Principal Cast : Liam Neeson, Laurence Fishburne, Benjamin Walker, Amber Midthunder, Marcus Thomas, Holt McCallany, Martin Sensmeier, Matt McCoy, Matt Salinger.
Synopsis: After a remote diamond mine collapses in far northern Canada, a ‘big-rig’ ice road driver must lead an impossible rescue mission over a frozen ocean to save the trapped miners.
Liam Neeson famously stated that The Marksman, also released in 2021, would be his swansong as an “action star”, having now carved a pretty commendable late-stage career in mid-budget fisticuff and shoot-em-up movies since the cult-classic Taken in 2008. Baffling, then, is the release of The Ice Road on Netflix, which sees Neeson step back into the comfortably masculine boots of “action star” as he careens out of control across the Manitoba ice to rescue a gaggle of trapped miners. Mixing one part Black Dog, another part Hold The Dark, a little of Hurricane Heist, and whole swag of television’s Ice Road Truckers, director Jonathan Hensleigh’s The Ice Road is a forgettable diversion mired in shoddy CGI and tepid, insufficient villainy to make much impact. With its frosty backdrop and tremulous conceit of driving across frozen rivers using them as freight highways, The Ice Road has a neat little conceit but lacks the polish to really commit to the moment. Instead, Neeson’s growly charm and a sneering, preening performance by Benjamin Walker (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) hold the ship steady before things crack, crumple and shatter beneath the axles of the 18-wheelers featured so prominently.
Iraq War veterans Mike and Gurty McCann (Liam Neeson and Marcus Thomas respectively) are recruited by Canadian Winnipeg-based freight magnate Jim Goldenrod (Laurence Fishburne) to haul rescue equipment to a collapsed mine in Manitoba, where 26 miners are trapped following a methane explosion. On the clock, Mike boards one of three semi-trailers to cross the distance in time, utilising rapidly thawing “ice roads” – frozen rivers upon which freight can be carted during the cold season – along with Goldenrod himself and a former employee, Tantoo (Amber Midthunder – Hell Or High Water), whose brother Cody (Martin Sensmeier) is one of those trapped underground. Also along for the ride is company insurance actuary Tom Varnay (Benjamin Walker), ostensibly to keep an eye on things but whose motivations quickly reveal themselves once the massive vehicles and their precious cargo are out on the ice.
Looking suspiciously like he was dragged kicking and screaming into this film, Liam Neeson’s considerable talent is wasted in this utter dreck from a normally reliable writer/director in Hensleigh. The premise is napkin-thin, the characters barely passable as human beings, and with a distinct lack of edge to proceedings alongside implausible action sequences and logic issues, The Ice Road is a one-way trip into yawnsville for even the most watchable ageing action hero of the current era. Neeson’s role as older brother to the mentally handicapped PTSD-afflicted Gurty, which ends up turning out exactly as you’d expect from such pulp writing as this, endeavours wholeheartedly to give some kind of complexity or nuance to the part, but not even an actor of his skill and wisdom can muster the enthusiasm for this frozen turkey. What starts well enough, with a cataclysmic mine explosion and the setup of the ticking clock to rescue the trapped men – there’s a lot of coincidence and plot wrangling to limit the options available to the mine to engage in the rescue – and things kick up a gear when the three trucks hauling cargo race out onto the ice. Sadly, though, the film’s violent bite is toothless, the machinations of the various antagonists involved shady as hell and half-cooked, and even as a minor C-grade outing there’s little to The Ice Road to warrant such hokum.
Admittedly the idea of driving trucks across frozen rivers terrifies me, so the inherent tension of the movie works early on to generate some thrills here and there. The slalem truck driving sequences and obligatory “race against the cracking ice” moments will leave you holding your breath at times. But the iniquitous character motivations and lethargic pacing make for a tough slog, the action sequences feel like they’re occurring in slow motion while character beats, such as they are, land on the screen with a thud. Neeson looks bored, frankly, and I don’t blame him. Filming this on the faultless white vistas of the deep North American ice-fields would have been a chore I’d say, and the man’s far too old to have to put up with this shit in his later career. So too Laurence Fishburn, slumming it as the “Steven Segal in Executive Decision” role for a change as he musters up the presence of mind to imbue his character with at least a touch of sly irony. Co-stars Marcus Thomas (Kill The Irishman), as the dimwitted Gerty, and Amber Midthunder (arguably the film’s MVP, for mine) offer solid support, as does Holt McCallany (Wrath Of Man) stuck beneath the surface as one of the buried miners, but none of them are especially well developed by the shoddy writing.
The film’s worst feature is Benjamin Walker’s Varney, the villain of the piece who starts off with no discernible motive and finishes the film with… well, you guessed it, still no discernible motive other than to simply be the biggest asshole he can. The sketchy underhanded motives of the mining executives collides with Varney’s continued attempts to kill Mike and his cohorts, although this particular plot device isn’t utilised or developed well enough to function any more than a barely-there MacGuffin, and a poor one at that. Walker is badly disserviced by this script, transitioning from gee-whizz suit-wearing douche to full-blown assassin through the course of the film, although exactly why, and what his point is, is never really clear, sadly. Both Walker and Neeson have an extended multi-vehicular fight sequence that feels like it lasts an eternity, and neither come away from this movie very well at all. Arguably, it’s Neeson’s worst post-Taken role, which is saying something because Taken 3 was absolute dogshite.
The Ice Road isn’t worth your time. It’s a debacle, a low-budget thriller lacking thrills, offering gormless action and terrible direction and/or editing (take your pick), laughable CGI in places and a credulity-stretched series of set-pieces that stifle entertainment beneath bending the suspension of disbelief beyond shattering point. About the only highlight is the wonderful performance of Amber Midthunder (who also co-starred in Neeson’s The Marksman, in a minor role); everything else is an absolute shitshow.