Liam Neeson has fought terrorists, mobsters, aliens, Nazis, the British army (in Ireland and Scotland), Sith Lords, Batman, feral wolves, and the sexual peccadillos of 20th century America. Now, the hulking, 69-year-old Irish actor faces his greatest threat yet: ice. Specifically, those North American roads that form over frozen bodies of water in the continent’s coldest regions, and are less than three feet thick. Truckers maneuver these “ice roads” in vehicles that weigh up to 65,000 pounds. The likelihood of skidding or jackknifing over these slick, makeshift highways and byways is huge, as is the chance of plunging your 16-wheeler straight into the subzero-temp drink. Those without nerves of steel need not get behind the wheel.
All these facts and figures are presented in The Ice Road‘s opening disclaimer, the better to give viewers a sense of the stakes when Neeson’s character — a heart-of-gold/tough-as-nails trucker named Mike — takes on a job that will force him to participate in a frosty death convoy. What these title cards don’t relay is the way in which these elements will be so incredibly mismanaged in the name of he-man melodrama, or the amount of stock plot points that will pockmark the movie’s path like so many potholes, or how much your face will sting every time you palm speedily rushes to your face while watching all of this. There are few activities more dangerous than driving tons of metal over inches of thin ice. Trying to watch this movie while stifling your laughter might be one of them.
Mike has been running payloads all over America for years, though his latest gig has brought him and his brother, Gurty (Marcus Thomas), up to Winnipeg. Thanks to his war-veteran brother’s PTSD, however, Mike has a tendency to get into scuffles defending his shellshocked sibling and lose gigs by the dozens. The dream is for the two of them to buy their own rig. Meanwhile, up in Northern Manitoba (432 miles from the Arctic Circle, for those of you playing along at home), there’s been a gas explosion inside a diamond mind. The foreman (Manhunter‘s Holt McCallany) tries to keep the trapped workers calm as the brass send for help. An independent trucking operator named Goldenrod (Laurence Fishburne) has to get 300 feet of pipe and 18 foot gas wellhead up to the site in under 30 hours, before the miners run out of oxygen. Worse, it’s the third week in April, which means he’s short on drivers — and the ice roads have already started thawing.
Still, those men aren’t going to free themselves from the rubble, so Goldenrod hires Mike, Gurty and Tantoo (Legion‘s Amber Midthunder), a young driver with Cree heritage and a chip on her shoulder, to undertake this deadly mission. The pay will be substantial. Ditto the risk. Hence, an insurance adjuster (Benjamin Walker) for the mining company is along for the ride. The three trucks can’t go too fast, or they’ll cause waves beneath the ice that make the roads ripple and buckle. They can’t go too slow, or the concentrated pressure on the tires will cause the ice to crack. It ain’t exactly hauling nitroglycerin through the South American jungle, but it’ll do.
At least, you would think that it would be enough to keep a thriller going for the long haul, but to quote the title of another Netflix release this week, it’s merely good on paper. In some other timeline, we get Kathyrn Bigelow, or John McTiernan, or George Miller, or even Joe Carnahan calling the shots here — filmmakers who all have an incredible grasp of how to film action sequences. In this reality, we get writer-director Jonathan Hensleigh behind the camera, whose ability to mount such sequences is…let’s say “less assured” than those folks. Forget balancing the set pieces with character development; everyone from Neeson’s flinty hero to the smallest supporting parts feel like they’ve been cobbled from spare archetype parts.
The parts that try to channel the trucker dramas of the 1970s (your White Line Fever, your High Ballin’) fall flat. The ratio of exposition-heavy dialogue to things-a-real-person-would-say lines is roughly 20 to 1. Any bit of visual wit (everyone puts bobbleheads on their dashboard; Tantoo’s is Custer) that manages to slip through feels accidental. A few twists are obvious: People aren’t who they say they are, and maybe the accident at the mine wasn’t an accident. Some chess pieces get taken off the board sooner than you’d like. You’d kill to have someone, anyone, release a Kraken. The landscapes and rigs are big, but everything about this thriller feels curiously puny. It’s the kind of film that a producer might make for the straight-to-video market and the market’s like, nah, we’re cool but thanks.
Neeson has made better pulpy B movies, and he’ll probably make worse ones than this. The good news is that, like buses, a new film from the star tends to come around every few hours, so you can skip this one without regrets. Plus this year has already given us Infinite. Have we not suffered enough?