Film Review – The Ice Road
The Ice Road
At this stage of his career, Liam Neeson seems content with making mid-level action thrillers. That’s not a bad thing, given that the genre has been dominated by superhero “event” films or franchise sequels for the better part of fifteen years. Seeing smaller, one-off actioners can sometimes be a nice change of pace. If Neeson has fun getting paid and making these kinds of movies, who are we to tell him otherwise? But Taken (2008) was a long time ago, and outside of The Grey (2011), he has not captured that same lightening in a bottle again. Most of his output have been forgettable – tailor made for the bargain bin, straight to VOD collection.
The Ice Road (2021) fits right into this mold. This time, Neeson brings his particular set of skills as Mike, a big rig truck driver who specializes in driving through frigid, hazardous conditions. An opening title card explains how truckers, in an effort get their shipments to their locations on time, traverse over frozen waters. Suffice to say: the journey is perilous. If they drive too slowly the weight of the rig can break through the ice. If they drive too fast, they can cause a pressure wave that can either flip the truck or plunge them into the water as well.
Obviously, not everyone would want to take on this kind of employment, but Mike doesn’t have much of a choice. One of his motivating factors is his brother, Gurty (Marcus Thomas). Gurty is a veteran who is suffering through PTSD, with Mike acting as his caretaker. A job opens up for them when Goldenrod (Laurence Fishburne) puts out a call to all available drivers to assemble for a rescue mission. A mine shaft in northern Canada has collapsed, and a team must haul the equipment needed to dig out the trapped workers. Goldenrod chooses Mike, Gurty, and a young woman named Tantoo (Amber Midthunder) to take on the task.
This setup alone is enough to make for some edge of your seat suspense. The rescue team face a time crunch to get the equipment to the mine before the diggers lose oxygen. Having to deal with heavy snow and cracking ice leaves plenty of room to get audiences on the edge of their seats. But writer/director Jonathan Hensleigh chooses to veer way off on a tangent, shoehorning several obstacles for our characters that get goofier the further the narrative goes along. We get secret plots, backstabbing, corporate corruption, fist fights and shootouts. Somewhere along the line the plight of the trapped miners becomes a second thought, taking a backseat to Liam Neeson once again going into kickass mode. By the time we get to him dodging gunfire from bad guys on snowmobiles, any sense of believability has flown out of the window.
Early on, Hensleigh’s direction (combined with Tom Stern’s cinematography) captures some beautiful shots of the frozen tundra. These landscapes look the best during the “golden hour” of the day, where the setting/rising sun paints a pink and purple canvas on top of shimmering white ice. Watching the actual big rigs flying down the road helps emphasize the size and power of the machines, compared to the instability of what lies beneath them. But these impressive visual moments are undercut with some of the worst use of CGI we’ve seen in quite some time. Explosions and avalanches look like they were rendered with technology from 1995. There are video games from a decade ago that have more believable graphics. The artificiality takes us right out of the story and sinks the tension.
The writing does not give the characters enough depth outside of surface level motivation. Many of them simply talk in exposition, explaining what’s going on and continuously reiterating the stakes. The miners are faces without personalities, constantly bickering about methane pockets and not much else. When things start getting dicey, they start arguing over the remaining oxygen and whether desperate measures need to be taken to survive. This would make for a strong philosophical and moral dilemma, but the writing doesn’t explore it further. Instead, the scenes underground feel as though they are simply meant to pad the runtime, giving us a temporary reprieve from what’s happening above.
From what I’ve just described, The Ice Road may sound like a complete waste of time. I wouldn’t go that far. It does what promises – those that go into it may already have an inkling of what they are about to experience. Liam Neeson’s performance is once again dependable. At sixty-nine years of age, he still has the agility and strength to pull off the physical demands of an action star. This is the very definition of “escapist cinema,” it’s just not a good example of it. Middle of the road movies aren’t always terrible, but as this film demonstrates, they’re not always great either.