The Ice Road doesn’t trust the straightforward formula of its actioner origins, needlessly complicating things to its detriment.
It’s 2021 and the Liam Neeson Action Machine continues unabated with yet another low-budget thriller wherein Neeson plays a principled but determined outsider forced into a situation that tests the limits of his morals and abilities. And so forth. After a methane explosion at a diamond mine deep in Northern Canada traps a bunch of miners in a cave-in, the mining company contracts a handful of big-rig long-haul truckers to drive essential equipment across a frozen stretch of ocean. As the opening expository text lets us know, this is “the so-called Ice Road,” and so begins The Ice Road. Think The Wages of Fear (or Sorcerer, if you like), but, you know…cold.
Neeson plays down-and-out trucker Mike, who keeps losing jobs because of his unstable and mentally disabled veteran brother Gurty, but the promise of a hefty reward and a lack of other options forces them to take this treacherous job. Also along for the ride in two other trucks, for the sake of redundancy, is hothead Tantoo (Amber Midthunder), always in and out of jail for protesting the desecration of indigenous lands (and whose brother is among the doomed miners), insurance company stooge and certainly not secretly up to no good Varnay (Benjamin Walker), and mission boss Jim Goldenrod (Laurence Fishburne, slumming it admirably).
There are logistical complications: if they go too fast, they’ll make a pressure wave that’ll crack the ice and sink the truck; if they go too slow, the weight of the thing won’t be distributed evenly enough, and again, into the icy drink they’ll go. Etc, etc. Writer/director Jonathan Hensleigh probably wrote at least a draft of every single tentpole action movie released in the entire 1990s, and you’d hope he knows that as long as he sticks to this straight-line plot, everything will probably hum along satisfyingly. Unfortunately, The Ice Road is tremendously bloated by sabotage, tales of corporate malfeasance, and snowmobile chases. In and of themselves, these aren’t such terrible elements, but they both needlessly complicate the film’s narrative (things are scary enough without the bad guys) and pad out the runtime to a nearly interminable 110 minutes. Worse, the action, while perfectly competent, is plagued by dismal dirt-cheap digital VFX; the pervading feeling Ice Road leaves viewers with is a longing for a more effective craftsman behind the wheel here. Someone like Jonathan Mostow might have made a bullet out of this.
You can currently stream Jonathan Hensleigh’s The Ice Road on Netflix.