By Alex McPherson
Director Jonathan Hensleigh’s new film, “The Ice Road,” is a solid, thoroughly predictable chunk of B-movie entertainment.
The film centers around Mike McCann (Liam Neeson), a blue-collar mechanic and big rig truck driver struggling to hold a job while looking after his brother, Gurty (Marcus Thomas), a war veteran with aphasia who’s also a skilled technician.
After an isolated diamond mine operated by Big Business “Katka” collapses in Manitoba, Canada, Mike and Gurty are recruited by fellow driver Jim Goldenrod (Laurence Fishburne) to help deliver life-saving wellheads to a mining base near the disaster location. They’re joined by a young Indigenous woman named Tantoo (Amber Midthunder) and a corporate actuary from Katka named Varnay (Benjamin Walker).
Together, the group must race to their destination before it’s game over for the miners, contending with all-powerful Mother Nature and greedy, cutthroat humans along the way.
Viewers likely know exactly what they’re signing up for with the “The Ice Road.” Indeed, Hensleigh’s film isn’t high art, but it remains an enjoyable diversion nevertheless. With Neeson embracing his action hero starhood once again, some likable characters, and a few stressful set-pieces, the film’s storytelling missteps and shoddy CGI don’t completely negate its charms.
Neeson does what he usually does here — portraying an aging badass with a short fuse willing to go to extreme lengths to protect those he cares about. While “The Ice Road” could have given his character more time to develop, he’s still a gruffly amusing lead, who’s fun to watch when let off the chain in the final act.
His brotherly bond with Gurty, well-portrayed by Thomas, is believable and surprisingly poignant, albeit heavy-handed thanks to the clunky script. Midthunder is underutilized but leaves a positive impression as Tantoo, an activist working for Goldenrod whose brother is trapped in the mine. Fishburne is primarily relegated to providing exposition dumps, but his grizzled mug fits in well amidst the snow-covered landscape.
The side-characters, on the other hand, don’t leave much of an impact. The backstabbing corporate heads of Katka are cartoonishly one-dimensional, and the sketchy Varnay has an arc that most viewers can likely foresee before the trek is even underway. The trapped miners are easy to sympathize with, but none of them stand out individually. Sure, we hope they get rescued, but “The Ice Road” could have done more to flesh them out as real people and not deploy them mainly as a plot device to heighten tension.
When our intrepid truckers embark on their treacherous voyage, “The Ice Road” presents some distinctive obstacles for them to overcome. Principally among these challenges are, you guessed it, the unstable ice roads they traverse. Hensleigh does an effective job at cranking up suspense when the ice could break beneath their feet at any moment. Watching them navigate their surroundings and evade deadly “ice waves” yields some thrilling moments, and scenes of Mike and company extricating themselves from sticky situations using their engineering skills are compelling to watch.
Unfortunately, when “The Ice Road” becomes a more traditional action thriller in its second half, Hensleigh doesn’t quite deliver the goods the material warrants — using some fake-looking CGI and iffy hand-to-hand combat that lacks any real “oomph” factor, held back by the film’s PG-13 rating. Familiar tropes of last-minute escapes, heroic sacrifice, and the bad guy who absolutely will not die are present in full force. While those clichés aren’t glaringly bad, the film has neither the emotional stakes nor the visceral action necessary to forge its own path.
Still, despite all this, “The Ice Road” is an adequate, though forgettable, way to spend two hours, trucking along at a steady enough clip without totally spinning out.
“The Ice Road” is a 2021 action-thriller written and directed by John Hensleigh. Starring Liam Neeson, Laurence Fishburne, Benjamin Walker, Marcus Thomas and Amber Midthunder, it is rated PG-13 for strong language and sequences of action and violence. Run time is 1 hour, 49 minutes. Alex’s Grade: C+
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.