Liam Neeson’s unexpected yet remarkably durable second act as a grizzled action star isn’t showing any signs of slowing down, and each one of his modest hits makes it that much easier to imagine the 69-year-old actor will be able to keep this up for many years to come. His secret? Efficiency. If Neeson broke into the world of mid-budget, low-rent beat-em-ups as a gangly brawler who was ready to go anywhere and fight anyone in order to rescue his daughter, his subsequent contributions to the genre were a lot more sedentary.
Movies like “Non-Stop” and “Run All Night” tried to hide that fact behind their titles — even “The Commuter” promised a greater degree of movement than it ultimately delivered — but Neeson’s more recent efforts have stopped trying to disguise that skewed ratio between intensity and exertion. In “Cold Pursuit,” he sparked a war that allowed him to watch much of the carnage from afar. In “The Marksman,” he spent most of the movie’s action sequences lying on his stomach.
That streak would seem to continue in Netflix’s “The Ice Road,” a frosty “Wages of Fear” riff in which Neeson plays a truck driver whose entire job is to just sit in one place for almost two straight days as he races a big rig down a brittle path that might crack open at any moment. But if this mildly refreshing mid-June spectacle is as thin and straightforward as the terrain that it covers — forgettable in a way that makes you feel like it’s melting while you watch it, and never as slick an action vehicle as its premise might suggest — it still manages to offer a few mild twists before the journey is over.
There’s a major character reveal, a half-hearted takedown of corporate greed, and even a light mea culpa about racial stereotypes (a recurring motif in Neeson’s recent work, which can be read as part of the Clint Eastwood archetype he’s inherited and/or a more personal form of apology). But the most satisfying of the surprises this broadly predictable movie has in store is also the simplest: Neeson eventually gets out of his truck (!) and kicks some ass.
Written and directed by Jonathan Hensleigh (a studio writer who’s previously stepped behind the camera for the likes of “Kill the Irishman” and “The Punisher”), “The Ice Road” doesn’t tire itself out by concealing its obvious debt to other, better movies; it’s all too easy to imagine Hensleigh walking into a boardroom at Netflix HQ, lighting a cigar, and rhetorically asking: “What if ‘Sorcerer,’ but cold?” while some executive slammed their fist on the money button. Be that as it may, the film is at its best when sticking to familiar routes, and tends to lose momentum whenever it sacrifices in-the-moment suspense for a generalized sense of urgency.
The story begins deep inside a remote northern Canadian diamond mine, which is pretty much the last place on Earth you want to be in the first scene of an action-thriller. Holt McCallany is wearing a silly wig and a pair of glasses — that’s good. One of the miners observes that the methane sensor is malfunctioning — that’s bad. The extremely fake-looking explosion that rocks the mine when someone hits a methane pocket two seconds later is even worse. Eight miners are dead and 24 are trapped underground with only 30 hours of breathable oxygen between them.
Enter: the ice truckers! Neeson plays Mike McCann, the kind of character who says “I don’t have a lot of tire left on my treads” with such weary conviction that it doesn’t really matter how flat the rest of the script is. Mike hasn’t done a lot of jobs over the last decade or so because he’s spent most of that time looking after his mechanic brother Gurty (Marcus Thomas), an Iraq War vet plagued by PTSD-related aphasia. Mike is ready to dump Gurty in a facility, but not quite ready enough to leave him there. Either way, he could use some money, and with most of his fellow truckers scattered to the four winds during the off-season, local contractor Jim Goldenrod (Laurence Fishburne) doesn’t have any choice but to hire the McCann brothers to drive one of the three color-coded 65,000 lb. big rigs that will haul rescue equipment up to Manitoba.
The second truck in the caravan will be steered by a twentysomething indigenous girl with a chip on her shoulder (the majorly charismatic Amber Midthunder as Tantoo), while the third will be handled by Jim himself. If anyone dies along the way, their cut of the six-figure payout will be split among the survivors, and the mining company insists that an insurance guy named Varnay come along to keep score (he’s played by Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter himself, Benjamin Walker). It’s April, the sun is shining, and these guys need to get at least one 30-ton wellhead up to the Great White North.
The first and most frustrating problem that Hensleigh encounters is that no one in the caravan is carrying nitroglycerine or anything else that might explode at the slightest bump. The ice roads make for truly spectacular scenery — the location shooting is a big plus whenever the vistas aren’t tainted by globs of bad CG — but watching people drive in a straight line just isn’t all that compelling. You know that at least one of the trucks is going to fall through the ice at some point, and it really couldn’t be easier to predict who will live to see the closing credits (even if there’s some intrigue as to how and why certain people meet their maker), so Hensleigh does his best to get ahead of the game.
None of what follows is as captivating as the premise itself, or the ominous sight of pressure waves rippling under the surface of the ice before things go haywire, but Hensleigh is still able to squeeze a few drops of fun out of the situation as it falls apart. One harried scene forces Mike and his pals to outrace a crack in the ice sheet while two of their trucks are tethered together; another… well, at least that scene where the trucks are tethered together is pretty cool.
The dramatic tension isn’t quite as sturdy. Even if Mike were shown to be an aggressive racist (he isn’t), the speed at which he accuses Tantoo of sabotage would be hard to swallow during such an all-hands-on-deck situation; meanwhile, her distaste for white people and what they’ve done to her native land is mostly played for laughs despite the fact that she has more at stake in this mission than anyone. The “Of Mice and Men” dynamic Hensleigh is angling for between Mike and Gurty might have been an effective choice in a movie that spared more time for it, but “The Ice Road” is so afraid of collapsing under its own thin surface that it spreads out its weight as wide as it can. That means frequent cut-aways to the trapped miners as they grow increasingly desperate, and also to a subplot involving the cartoonishly evil mining executives who refuse to let a few dead employees affect their bottom line.
Hensleigh can’t afford to heat up any real suspense without the whole movie falling apart under his feet, which is mighty unfortunate considering how much potential the ice roads have as the setting for a heart-in-your-throat adventure. Tantoo explains that the trucks can’t go too fast or too slow because anything other than a happy medium might disrupt the pressure, but “The Ice Road” doesn’t share a trucker’s discipline, and it speeds up and up and up until it bleeds into a different, more conventional action sub-genre altogether.
Still, it begrudgingly must be admitted that the simple pleasures of the movie’s second half are satisfying enough to remind you why Neeson’s star has never shined brighter than it does in his twilight years, and why he’s probably got enough spare tires in his trunk to keep on trucking in forgettable, relatively old-school programmers like this one for another decade to come. After more than 100 minutes of janky special effects, watching this borderline septuagenarian beat the living shit out of some bad guys like it’s 2008 all over again seems like the most natural thing in the world.
“The Ice Road” is now streaming on Netflix.