Well, it’s been about a month or so, so it must be time for a new Liam Neeson movie to pop up on a streaming service, as God intended it. And I’m fine with that when it’s a film like The Ice Road. This time around, Neeson’s special set of skills is driving a big-rig across miles of frozen water more than a month after the season for doing such such driving has ended in far northern Canada. Neeson plays Mike, living in North Dakota with his mechanic brother Gurty (Marcus Thomas), who is brain damaged and suffering from PTSD after serving in the military. The two work as a pair, but because of Gurty’s behavioral issues, they have trouble holding down steady work.
The film opens with the collapse of a diamond mine in Manitoba, Canada, that leaves a couple dozen miners trapped. The only way to save them involves getting a special, massive pump to remove any methane gas before the rescue mission can begin. There’s a limited air supply, so the clock is ticking, and Neeson and Gurty are one pair of three drivers who must cross the thawing waters for miles to reach them. Another rig is driven by the mission organizer Goldenrod (Laurence Fishburne), and the final vehicle is driven by Tantoo (Amber Midthunder), a young native woman whose brother (Martin Sensmeier) is one of the trapped miners. But she’s also an activist for her people, so she’s frequently in jail for protesting and must be bailed out before she can join them for the drive. There’s a great deal of money to be made making this run, and Benjamin Walker plays Varnay, an insurance adjuster for the company that owns the trucks and equipment they are hauling, so he rounds out the team.
The Ice Road is a slightly misleading title, since only a portion of the film takes place on the actual ice road, but what a tense and spectacular portion it is, with hints of Wages of Fear at play as the drivers must go at a speed that’s fast enough to keep the weight of the trucks from weighing down the ice in one place for too long, but slow enough not to kick up too much energy and risk causing the ice to buckle ahead of them (it makes sense when they say it). One thing in particular I appreciated about the movie was the time it takes to explain the scenario and its dangers. When something goes wrong or breaks down, we actually see the team members work together to solve the problem in what is likely the exact way these issues would be dealt with in the real world. At one point, two of the trucks end up on their sides on the ice, and they manage to get them up using cable and winches as if it was just part of the job—which it is.
Since it’s a Liam Neeson movie, there have to be actual villains as well because the treacherous ice simply isn’t enough for him. Things with the mining company (in particular Matt McCoy’s general manager Sickle) aren’t exactly what they seem, and they may have reasons for not wanting the trapped miners to be rescued, which means someone on the mission might have a reason for sabotaging it. We do get to check in on the miners, led by Lampard (Holt McCallany), from time to time, and they quickly begin to turn on each other as the air gets thin and they begin to realize that with fewer people breathing, some of them could last longer. This film does not display the greatest cross-section of humanity.
Writer/director Jonathan Hensleigh (the writer of such films as Jumanji, Armageddon, and Die Hard with a Vengeance, as well as the director behind the Thomas Jane version of The Punisher) does a decent job keeping things moving and, more importantly, believable. The threats here seem very real, and the skilled yet treacherous driving on display feels authentic most of the time. Of course, when Neeson outdrives an avalanche, I was a wee bit skeptical. There might be too much story for such a simple suspense/action film, but it’s not like you’re going to get lost from too many plot threads either. The Ice Road is an above-average thrill ride that’s as predictable as it is exciting. It’s an easy way to pass a couple of hours and a solid entry in a canon of movies that remind us that anything can be made a little bit better with Liam Neeson in it (and showing us what a man nearing 70 can still do).
The film is now streaming on Netflix.
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