A film review by Craig J. Koban July 8, 2021

THE ICE ROAD j

2021, PG-13, 108 mins.

Liam Neeson as Mike  /  Laurence Fishburne as Goldenrod  /  Holt McCallany as René Lampard  /  Matt McCoy as George Sickle  /  Martin Sensmeier as Cody  /  Benjamin Walker as Varnay

Written and directed by Jonathan Hensleigh
 

 

 

 

THE ICE ROAD is the single worst Liam Neeson as a Manitoban semi-truck driver thriller I've ever seen.   

It just has to be.   

This film has to be seen to be believed.  Seemingly everything but the kitchen sink has been thrown in by writer/director Jonathon Hensleigh (THE PUNISHER and KILL THE IRISHMAN, making his first foray behind the camera in a decade): We got, yes, big rig trucks...we got ice roads...we got Manitoban snow covered vistas...we got trapped diamond miners whose lives are in danger...we got PTSD riddled soldiers trying to acclimate to a life on the outside...I mean...like...wow!  There's a lot of movie in this movie.  

To be completely fair, no one should actually diminish the work of actual truckers that have to traverse some of the most dangerous terrain on the planet (and terrain not really built for vehicles of this size or weight), but THE ICE ROAD is so incredibly dopey and dull as far as aging Liam Neeson taking out the trash thrillers.  The Oscar nominated actor has made a career resurgence in the last decade-plus as an unlikely action hero, and I've been a defender of many of these outing.  THE ICE ROAD is pretty indefensibly awful on all accounts; it makes this year's THE MARKSMEN (also with Neeson) look like DIE HARD. 

The perpetually steely eyed and gravel voiced actor has waged one-man wars on just about every conceivable target over the years in the TAKEN series, NON-STOP, THE GREY, and so on, but he's never faced such a punishing challenge as great as Canadian winters (trust me...they're brutal).  In THE ICE ROAD Neeson (in perhaps his most phoned-in performance to date) plays Mike, a down on his luck big rigger that once served proudly in the Iraq War with his brother Gurty (Markas Thomas, who's never once plausible as a sibling to Neeson), but a devastating injury to him forced forced both men to retire from service and find a way to make ends meet on the home front.  And poor ol' Gurty was so traumatized by his battlefront experience that he's in a perpetually childlike state of confusion and constantly requires the aid and care of his older brother.  Think of Gurty as a Rain Man-like figure to Neeson's Mike, but way, way less well written.  Oh, but Gurty is a wiz as a mechanic despite his mental limitations.   

 

 

THE ICE ROAD actual begins by showing a massive explosion at a very remote diamond mind in Northern Manitoba, trapping all of the workers inside.  With the clock ticking and air running out, authorities are quickly trying to find a manner to save them.  A methane leak led to the disaster, meaning that new wellheads are needed ASAP to stabilize the area and the mines.  There's one big problem: The wellhead weighs 30 tons and can't be simple flown in...only semi-trucks will be capable of securing their delivery in a timely manner.  There's an even bigger problem: The only way the trucks can make it is by driving across the so-called ice roads of Northern Manitoba, which are driving paths right on top of lake beds that are used in winter months for supply runs...but it's now spring.  A North Dakota big rig company man named Goldenrod (yes, actual name, played by Laurence Fishburne) receives word of what's happening at the mine and what's needed to be done, so he decides to take the Herculean challenge and recruit a cracker jack squad of brave men and women to take on the wellhead delivery assignment. 

And wouldn't you know it, Mike and his baby brother are tasked, with both desperate for cash after losing their respective jobs after Mike decked one of their co-workers in the face after making fun of his mentally scarred brother by calling him a "retard" (never call a brother of Liam Neeson this in a movie...or anyone's brother, for that matter).  Goldenrod, Mike, and Gurty are joined by a brave Native Canadian named Tantoo (Amber Midthunder), who's just as good on the rigs as her male companions and has a personal stake in the mission (her own brother is one of the trapped miners).  Along for the ride is the big city cooperate insurance man named Varnay (Benjamin Walker, who I thought - ironically enough - looked an awful lot like a young Liam Neeson in the title role of the totally based on a true story ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER).  Varnay looks innocent and harmless enough, but I think that we've all seen enough films of THE ICE ROAD's variety to be able to easily surmise that this dude is definitely not the straight shooter that he claims to be and probably has evil intentions.  To say that Walker is saddled with one of the most obvious and telegraphed villain roles in recent memory would be the grandest of understatements. 

Of the very few (and I mean very few) good things about THE ICE ROAD I will say this: At nearly 70, Neeson can still bring it as a gnarly and now elderly action star.  Even though he has been taking far too many paycheck grabbing roles like this one and the one given too him in the equally insipid THE MARKSMEN for my tastes, the former Oscar Schindler nevertheless makes the proceedings watchable by his very presence alone (even though he's straddled with some awful lines like "Kiss my Irish ass!").  For the relative class that he brings to the film, there's no question that Mike is simply a third tier character for Neeson, and it's one written on pure autopilot (trigger happy old man with a history of violence is called upon to save the day and destroy his enemies) and the formula is frankly getting pitifully stale.  Outside of the setting and story differences, Neeson's characters from THE MARKSMEN and THE ICE ROAD are so vanilla plain and interchangeable that you kind of have to wonder if they were shot together. 

Also, for a film about miners facing certain death with depleted oxygen reserves, THE ICE ROAD never once makes us care for any of these doomed men.  Their predicament is a plot moving device more than anything and Hensleigh so haphazardly segues between the truckers and the miners that I often forget the film even had a trapped miners subplot at times.  And, man, for a film that's basically a B-grade pulp adventure flick, THE ICE ROAD pathetically tries to shoehorn in some somber and topical themes/commentary that are dead on arrival on the scripted page.  There's a couple of fleeting moments about the perils of PTSD afflicted soldiers at home and how unscrupulous doctors are over prescribing them with opioids (the scene between a raging Mike and Gurty's doctor is so shamefully black and white and simplistic in its portrayal of this actual crisis that's it's laughable).  Then there's a story thread about vile and greedy corporate stooges that are trying to cover up the methane explosion to save a quick buck.  Then there's Tantoo's peoples' plight about how said companies have been exploiting Native lands for what seems like an eternity and fuels her current rage against them in all endeavors.   All of these are important topics of conversation, to be sure, but THE ICE ROAD mistakes just lazily throwing these elements into the mixing bowl that is this film's mediocre script as compelling versus actually engaging in some compelling discourse on the matters; Hensleigh's handling here seems heavy handed and lacking in nuance. 

What we've essentially left with is the action set pieces themselves, but the oftentimes ludicrously unconvincing VFX of showing these gigantic rigs on the Manitoba ice roads really compromises their effectiveness.  That, and I simply couldn't shake how this thriller is so fundamentally lacking in genuine suspense.  Considering the limitless perils that are placed upon Mike and his cohorts (not to mention the real life dangers that befall actual ice road long haul truckers), THE ICE ROAD is a borderline slumber inducing and watch checking affair throughout.  Neeson has made some iffy genre entries in the tail end of his career, but few as weakly disposable as this one.  And by the way, this is not the first cold weather themed Neeson genre piece.  If you want to see a thanklessly good one then seek out COLD PURSUIT, where he played another type of trucker (a snow plow driver) that used his particular set of skills to seek revenge on local drug dealers that made his son a foaming at the mouth addict.  That film was just as preposterous in terms of premise as THE ICE ROAD, but it was colorfully scripted and makes for a fine companion piece to show how to properly exploit Neeson in these types of pictures.  COLD PURSUIT was a guilty pleasured hoot, whereas this one is just guilty of being dead on arrival. 

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