It may be getting a chilly reception from critics, but THE ICE ROAD (2021), a new Netflix adventure starring Liam Neeson is at bare minimum an entertaining thrill ride that provides some popcorn movie fun here at the beginning of summer.
In northern Canada a mining accident traps nearly thirty miners underground. Rescue proves nearly impossible, and with oxygen running out, and methane gas everywhere, their only hope lies in the people on the outside being able to cap the gas. But this can’t be done without a wellhead. The only way to get the heavy wellhead and pipe to the mine is by truck, and that means traversing over the dangerous ice roads in April, a time when conditions are exceedingly treacherous.
The man in charge of the trucks, Goldenrod (Laurence Fishburne) only has a few hours to put together a replacement team of drivers, since all of his staff have already left for vacation. He recruits a talented young female driver Tantoo (Amber Midthunder) who he had once fired for “borrowing” a truck during off-hours, and two currently unemployed truckers Mike (Liam Neeson) and his brother Gurty (Marcus Thomas). Goldenrod wants to know why Mike and Gurty can’t seem to hold jobs, and when Mike explains his brother has psychological problems after time in military combat, Goldenrod hires them.
There will be three trucks on the trip, each carrying the same wellhead and pipe, in an effort to increase the odds of getting the materials to the mine in time. The extra member of the team is an insurance representative from the company named Varnay (Benjamin Walker) who’s only there to keep an eye on things. Yeah, right. We just had this same exact plot point in the zombie apocalypse thriller ARMY OF THE DEAD (2021). If there’s a rep from the company, you know that can only mean one thing: trouble. That’s right, because here in THE ICE ROAD, we have once again that cliched villain in the movies, the dreaded evil company! Cue maniacal laugh!
And when it becomes apparent that the truckers not only have the thawing ice on the road to contend with, but sinister forces at work, it’s up to our friendly neighborhood action hero Liam Neeson to save the day!
If you are a Liam Neeson fan, you will no doubt enjoy THE ICE ROAD. I’m a fan, and I liked it. Even though at this point Neeson can play these roles in his sleep, he still excels at it and makes Mike a character you root for and feel good about following on this journey. And even though Neeson is pushing 70, he still makes this kind of tough guy character believable.
And there are some rather exciting sequences on the ice road, involving melting ice, trucks falling through, and wiping out in every direction. There are also some fun and exciting chase sequences. Director Jonathan Hensleigh gives this one a very cinematic feel. I felt I was at the movie theater watching it.
But THE ICE ROAD isn’t a very smart movie. In fact, it’s quite the opposite, and since Hensleigh also wrote the screenplay, as much as I enjoyed his direction here, I disliked his writing.
One of the stories told in THE ICE ROAD is the plight of the trapped miners, but it’s told superficially, and we don’t really get to know the stories of the men trapped down there. Had their stories been told, it would have added a whole other layer to this thriller. Holt McCallany, who was so memorable as FBI agent Bill Tench on the TV show MINDHUNTER (2017-2019) plays one of the trapped miners and makes the most of his scenes, but like the other men, his story is not fleshed out. It’s a wasted opportunity for McCallany.
And the sense of what is happening on the ground around the mine is not captured at all. Is there a rescue mission happening? Are people outside in a panic? Family members? Co-workers? Reporters? Any sense of urgency about these trapped folks is absent.
Likewise, the rescue mission with the trucks, which is clearly the focus of the movie, strangely is less about the natural dangers of getting the equipment to the mine in time and more about the silly subplot of the evil company trying to sabotage everything.
Which for me was clearly the worst part of THE ICE ROAD. The story of the trucks having to make a treacherous trip across incredibly dangerous roads of melting ice is naturally exciting. A plot built on this idea could have been really intense. Instead, the film goes the route of the “evil company”! And that whole story is convoluted and far less believable than a straightforward rescue mission tale.
Laurence Fishburne is every bit as good as Liam Neeson here as Goldenrod, in what turns out to be just a supporting role. I wish Fishburne had been in the movie more. And Amber Midthunder delivers a spunky, energetic performance as Tantoo, the young driver who is as talented as she is volatile.
But THE ICE ROAD belongs to Liam Neeson. Not because his performance is otherworldly good. No, it’s far from it. It’s a decent performance, of course, but we’ve seen Neeson do this countless times before. THE ICE ROAD belongs to Neeson because he possesses tremendous screen presence, and when he’s on screen, you pay attention.
I thought THE ICE ROAD was a rather stupid movie that should have been better because its main plot of trucks making a harrowing trip to save trapped miners was good enough on its own. Instead, the film adds a dumb plot of sabotage and cover-up. And yet I enjoyed THE ICE ROAD and had fun watching it, for the simple reason that Liam Neeson is that level of actor who can take a dumb movie like this, put it on his back, and make you forget that what you are watching is all rather inane.