At first glance, The Ice Road looks like an algorithmically engineered mash-up of The 33 (about Chilean miners trapped underground) and The Wages Of Fear (a French classic—remade in the U.S. as Sorcerer—in which several big rigs attempt to haul nitroglycerin across treacherous terrain), with the History Channel reality show Ice Road Truckers thrown in for good measure. That’s the basic setup, certainly: A cave-in at a northern Manitoba diamond mine buries over two dozen men, and there’s no means of rescuing them without the aid of equipment called wellheads, which weigh roughly 25 tons each and need to be transported across frozen lakes… in April, when the ice is starting to melt and the roads in question are officially closed. This scenario offers suspense on twin fronts, with the miners struggling to conserve dwindling oxygen and stave off suicidal (or homicidal) despair while the truckers try to avoid sinking into a watery grave. And if The Ice Road starred, say, Bradley Cooper or Miles Teller, that’s all you’d expect.
Instead, writer-director Jonathan Hensleigh cast a man with a very particular set of skills. Nobody hires Liam Neeson these days just to have him drive a truck for two hours, so it’s not a huge surprise when thin ice proves to be only one among many dangers faced by his character, Mike, who’s just been fired for punching a coworker (justifiably, of course) and desperately needs the $50,000 he’ll receive for getting his wellhead to the mine in time. Mike’s not the only driver making the journey, however. So is the operation’s boss, a no-nonsense guy who goes by the literally colorful name of Goldenrod (Laurence Fishburne). A third driver, Tantoo (Amber Midthunder, late of Legion), signs up as well, though only after Goldenrod posts her bail, as she’s been locked up for violently protesting the exploitation of indigenous lands. Then there’s the mining company’s dweeby insurance dude (Benjamin Walker), who insists on being allowed to keep a close eye on valuable assets. And just to make things extra spicy, any driver’s accidental death results in his/her 50 grand being split evenly among the survivors.
Once The Ice Road’s true narrative emerges, that goofy contractual detail—say, can we create nightmare incentives for this urgent rescue mission, maybe turn it into a demolition derby on ice?—winds up overshadowed by even more nefarious (and preposterous) developments that are best left unspoiled. Suffice it to say that Neeson’s agent clearly still flips through screenplays looking for the word “revenge.” The film arguably works best prior to this gearshift, when it appears to be primarily about keeping huge vehicles moving steadily and horizontally rather than abruptly and vertically. That’s nervewracking enough to have kept Ice Road Truckers on the air for 11 seasons, and Hensleigh (Kill The Irishman) makes good use early on of faint cracking sounds and shots of enormous rumbling tires as seen from underneath the ice. If anything, he’s in too much of a hurry—both The Wages Of Fear and Sorcerer devote plenty of time to what are essentially complex engineering problems, whereas the equally daunting instances here (one truck is submerged and the other two are on their sides within the first 40 minutes!) zip by in montage form.
After all, Neeson needs someone to relentlessly pursue. Mike isn’t one of his more memorable tough guys, in part because of Hensleigh’s desire to provide ostensible pathos via Mike’s brother, Gurty (Marcus Thomas), an ace mechanic who requires constant supervision due to a Gulf War injury that left him permanently aphasic. Gurty speaks in a sort of word salad that only Mike understands and generally seems to have the cognitive skills of a child; Thomas plays him with cloying guilelessness, which forces Neeson into bland nobility. Midthunder compensates to some degree with an enjoyably spiky performance, though it might have been more fun had Tantoo been in jail for a less admirable reason. And Fishburne exudes the sort of casual professionalism that makes you grateful for his presence and sorry to see him go. Even at its dumbest, The Ice Road holds your attention; a climactic fight/chase scene even acknowledges that it’s hard to look badass on a slippery surface. Ultimately, though, this is a movie in which Liam Neeson actually growls “It’s not about money now. This is personal.” What, again? We certainly did not see that coming.