As the sweltering heat wave across most of the United States continues this week, a movie set in the icy early spring in Manitoba, Canada, with plenty of snow and chilling gusts could give audiences a cooling experience through osmosis.
But beyond this escape to a colder environment, action thriller “The Ice Road” doesn’t offer anything new that similar movies haven’t done dozens of times before. Starring the king of disposable B-grade action movies with super simple premises, Liam Neeson continues doing what he does best here with a personality almost as cold as the ice.
From writer/director Jonathan Hensleigh, best known for his 1990s screenplays for “Jumanji,” Die Hard with a Vengeance” and “Armageddon,” a story about big rig truckers driving across a frozen lake could be quite thrilling and suspenseful, but unfortunately there’s not as much of exactly that as their should be for a movie called “The Ice Road.”
Possessing several solid action scenes that the cast and crew obviously put a lot of work into, a clichéd and unfocused script holds back what could be a great addition to Neeson’s later oeuvre. The thrills of seeing a semi truck weighing tens of thousands of pounds try to outrun a cracking lake beneath it is thrilling, but it can only get you so far.
After the sudden collapse of a mining tunnel in Manitoba, killing eight miners and leaving 26 more unaccounted for, it falls to the seasoned big-rig driver Mike McCann (played by Neeson) to deliver a vital, 30-ton, 18-foot gas well-head and 300 feet of pipe up there in under 30 hours.
Composed of Mike’s PTSD-stricken brother Gurty (Marcus Thomas), the veteran truck driver Jim Goldenrod (Laurence Fishburne) and Jim’s brilliant ex-employee Tantoo (Amber Midthunder), the hand-picked team has to brave the elements and travel across the thin ice road of a frozen lake in April that can shatter to pieces at any moment.
As a mysterious menace threatens their mission, neither the ice cracking under their wheels nor the arctic blizzards can compare with the challenges that await the drivers ahead as the miners’ window to survive is rapidly closing.
Opening this story with the mine explosion and tunnel collapsing is certainly an exciting way to start the movie, but it sure doesn’t help the story. So much time is devoted to the guys trapped in the mine and the company trying to find a way to get the right equipment for them on the way to recruiting Neeson and his brother and the team heading out on the ice.
For one thing, very few of the characters have much to them, so the audience isn’t going to care what happens. In less than a minute from when he walks on screen, you know exactly what Neeson’s character is all about and he doesn’t really change the whole movie. The same could be said for Fishburne’s character, the mine’s white collar bosses and the miners trapped underground. They’re all one dimensional and stock characters we’ve seen before.
The one exception to this is Midthunder’s performance as Tantoo, an indigenous woman whose brother is trapped in the mind. After learning about her shady past, she’s easily the best person in the movie and her complex relationship to the other guys on the mission makes for a lot more personal stakes than the miners by themselves.
Although there isn’t nearly as much as there should be, the action sequences are mostly full of suspense and entertaining. Neeson doesn’t punch or shoot an army of bad guys, but watching the rig go over the lake while the ice cracks and falls apart from underneath is thrilling. Each new obstacle along the road makes the mission a little harder, but also introduces some unique action scenes. If only the CGI looked as good as the actual trucks really sliding across the ice.
“The Ice Road” may have some fun action sequences with impressive big rig stunts, but those thrills aren’t going to hold up on repeat viewings. Years from now, looking up a 5-minute YouTube video of the truck on the ice will be much easier than sitting through the whole movie, as fun as Neeson driving it is.