For Liam Neeson—a one-time A-list actor with awards-worthy performances to his name—a less-than-lucrative, if likely fulfilling career as a character or supporting actor awaited him as he hit his mid-fifties, but then Taken came along and irrevocably changed the trajectory of his career for better or for worse. In mid-budget action film after mid-budget action film, Neeson has consistently delivered world-weary, gravitas-filled performances above and beyond the needs of over-familiar, often cliche-heavy scripts. Neeson’s characters don’t want to become action-heroes, but circumstances repeatedly dictate otherwise, something that allowed audiences to continue their infatuation with and/or interest with Neeson long past the usual expiration date.
Neeson’s latest action programmer, The Ice Road, falls squarely within Neeson’s new comfort zone. While he’s not playing an ex-spy or ex-special forces type with a “special set of skills,” it’s clear from the get-go that the generically named Mike McCann (Neeson’s character) isn’t your average, low-on-luck ice trucker, but an extraordinary dude hiding in plain sight. He’s defined by his excellent driving skills, his near-superhuman willpower/steely reserve, and his unconditional love for his younger brother, Gurty (Marcus Thomas), a disabled Iraq War veteran with PTSD. While Gurty’s war injury left him with brain damage and aphasia, he’s otherwise unchanged and capable of working alongside Mike as a big-rig mechanic.
Mike’s tendency to step in with his fists when insensitive truckers verbally abuse Gurty makes him a potential liability for employers, right up until a mining disaster across the U.S.-Canadian border leaves 26 men trapped in a mine with dwindling air supplies. The only solution is a 65K-ton wellhead needed to drill and cap a methane leak, on the wrong side of a dangerous ice road(s). With funds low and desperation setting in, Mike volunteers and joins crew chief/leader Jim Goldenrod (Laurence Fishburne), Tantoo (Amber Midthunder, Legion), a First Nations trucker, and Varnay (Benjamin Walker, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), an insurance adjuster, to transport three wellheads in separate big rigs.
As we’re not so casually informed, the second and third wellheads—and thus the second and third trucks—are needed as redundancy in case one or more trucks are lost to the dangers of the long, not-so-winding ice road(s). With temps going up during the day, the miners on a 30-hour countdown until their air runs out, and possibly one or more corporate-funded saboteurs trying to stop Mike and the other drivers, the stage seems set for a series of supposedly tense and/or suspenseful action sequences. Each one involves the possible loss of one or more trucks to cracking ice, unexpected accident, or deliberate sabotage—the last functioning, at least in part, as The Ice Road’s perfunctory stab at political commentary: Profits-over-people corporations are the real villain(s) here.
Unfortunately, dodgy visual effects—sometimes the dodgiest of dodgy CGI—repeatedly drain those sequences of any tension or suspense. CGI has been the go-to answer for visual effects sequences, but maybe, just maybe, old-school miniature effects would have been the better choice here, especially where money was the opposite of no object. The literally linear nature of the journey across the ice doesn’t aid matters either. A few literal curves or even some inclines might have helped in the suspense department, but writer-director Jonathan Hensleigh (The Punisher, Armageddon) seemed to think that icy dangers were of less importance than the inter-human ones between Mike, the saboteur(s), and their corporate masters.
Cutting between the trucks carrying the wellheads and the trapped miners doesn’t add the sense of urgency Hensleigh obviously intended, not when the miners are so thinly drawn and under-developed that their names and identities make little, if any, difference beyond a familiar character actor here or there. A late-film discussion about saving oxygen through extreme means echoes a similar dilemma that drove The Dark Knight’s third act, but that was over a decade ago and any in-film discussion here simply pales in comparison. Then again, Hensleigh seemed content to aim low narratively, thematically, and visually. At least in that respect, he succeeded exactly as planned.
The Ice Road is available to stream via Netflix.