While some actors seek out challenging and surprising fare, others find a comfort zone and stick to it. Liam Neeson‘s late career sees him in that second group, and while he’s been threatening to quit action movies for several years now he just can’t find the strength to walk away. His latest foray into the genre suggests he’s got one foot out the door, though, as The Ice Road feels like a half-hearted venture at nearly every turn.
A methane explosion at the Katka diamond mine in Manitoba leaves several miners dead and many more trapped beneath the earth’s surface. They’re on a countdown clock as breathable air grows ever scarcer, but a rescue mission requires an enormously heavy wellhead and piping that they don’t have. Too heavy to fly, the equipment can only be delivered by trucks, and the time limit means the 65,000 pound vehicles will need to traverse ice roads — paths cleared out for travel across frozen lakes during the winter months. That season ended weeks ago, and it being mid-April means the ice is melting and the roads are extremely hazardous.
A handful of drivers are willing to take the risk (and the hefty paycheck that comes with it), and soon three trucks loaded with identical equipment for redundancy are heading north. Mike (Neeson) and his brother Gurty (Marcus Thomas), an Iraq War vet with terrific mechanical skills and a post-war mental disorder, sign up for the paycheck while Jim (Laurence Fishburne) heads up the trucking company and gets behind the wheel of the second truck. A young Native woman named Tantoo (Amber Midthunder) has a more personal motivation as her brother is among the trapped miners, and she’s joined by a mining company insurance man named Varnay (Benjamin Walker) who definitely won’t cause any trouble along the way. It should come as no surprise that not all of them will survive the journey.
The Ice Road starts from a strong premise pitting earnest characters against the deadly challenge of treacherous terrain in pursuit of a better life, but things quickly fall apart for both the characters and the film. While it aims to be the streaming cousin to The Wages of Fear (1953) or Sorcerer (1977), it instead gets stuck in first gear and stalls out as just another Neeson picture. It’s a shame as that setup has real potential for suspense and tension — hell, The History Channel milked it for ten years with their “reality” series Ice Road Truckers (2007-2017) — but writer/director Jonathan Hensleigh doesn’t appear to have faith that it’s enough.
Hensleigh has the genre chops as a writer for fare that’s both relatively grounded (Die Hard With a Vengeance, 1995) and utterly ridiculous (Armageddon, 1998), but his attempt to straddle that line here ends up a clumsy balancing act doomed to sink beneath the ice. Early sequences on the ice road manage some suspense as each crack echoes across frightened faces, but in addition to some questionable choices — one truck breaks down on the ice, and the others back up to be near it which is something real ice road truckers would never be stupid enough to do — the action moves off the ice pretty quickly and onto solid ground as double-crosses, corporate conspiracies, and motorcycle-driving gunmen enter the picture.
The script isn’t The Ice Road‘s only issue as subpar CG effects turn some of the bigger action beats towards the neighborhood of cheap Fast & Furious knockoff. Editing and pacing are equally off-kilter as some sequences rush through an event to the point that it’s not entirely clear what happened or how. Other times drag out, though, as characters stand there watching ice crack beneath their feet or an avalanche rush down a mountain towards them. At one point, with mere minutes of oxygen left for the miners, our heroes stop their truck to get out and marvel at a collapsed bridge behind them. You’d think long-haul truckers would be better with time-management.
There are bright spots, and while they’re not enough to salvage the film necessarily they keep it from being a complete waste of time. An extended action sequence sees armed villains attempting to board the moving trucks, and various antics that entails deliver some thrills. The cast, while small, has some always welcome faces in Fishburne, Holt McCallany, and Matt McCoy. Midthunder is a young Native American actor with an already full resume — she was last seen in The Marksman (2021) with Neeson and is attached to an upcoming Predator film — who brings a burst of attitude and energy to an otherwise older male cast. Neeson, meanwhile, is Neeson. His performances in genre fare over the last decade amounts to take it or leave it, matter of fact appearances, and that’s not about to change here. We do see the back of his stand-in’s head more than usual this time around, but it is what it is.
The Ice Road feels like a direct to video action movie so it’s fitting it found a home on Netflix, and that’s not a criticism. It is, however, an acknowledgement that the movie lacks the budget to pull of some of its intended thrills. Trucks and people fall through the ice, Neeson punches out baddies, and the people you know won’t make it absolutely don’t make it. You’ll pass some time here, but don’t expect to travel this road again anytime soon.