As if the Frozen North hadn’t already given him enough grief in “The Grey” and “Cold Pursuit,” Liam Neeson is back for more chilly punishment with “The Ice Road.” Jonathan Hensleigh’s first feature as writer-director since “Kill the Irishman” a decade ago has the star as one of three drivers making a dangerous journey to deliver equipment needed to rescue trapped miners in Northern Manitoba.
Just about every possible peril turns up to thwart their mission en route, making for an increasingly implausible action movie that will entertain most viewers, but also perhaps make them feel a bit played for fools. In the U.S., it’s going straight to Netflix on June 25, while other distributors are handling theatrical and/or online release in numerous other territories over the coming weeks.
At a Canadian diamond mine 400 miles below the Arctic Circle, a methane explosion kills eight workers and strands another 26 in a tunnel deep beneath the surface. Between limited oxygen and permafrost temperatures, the survivors only have 30 hours or so to be rescued, or they’ll perish. It falls to Jim Goldenrod (Laurence Fishburne) to draft qualified drivers to transport all-important wellheads down the long, treacherous ice roads atop frigid lakes, in vehicles weighing up to 65,000 pounds. But at this especially high-risk time of year for such trips, his usual haulers are gone, most on far-flung vacations. So his recruiting gets inventive, bailing feisty ex-employee and Native rights activist Tantoo (Amber Midthunder) out of jail; she’s more than eager to sign on, since her half-brother (Martin Sensmeier) is among the trapped.
He also reluctantly takes on Mike (Neeson), a previously unmet Yank big-rigger who’s just lost yet another job due to brother Gurty (Marcus Thomas), a talented mechanic but also a PTSD-afflicted, childlike Iraq War veteran who requires a considerable amount of caretaking. Jim himself drives a third vehicle, the idea being that at least one in their convoy will make it through any hazards to the mine site in time.
But not all those dangers turn out to be ones Mother Nature devises, such as cracking ice or snowstorms. We soon detect two snakes here: Tantoo is stuck with a passenger (Benjamin Walker as Varney) who says he’s the insurance company’s representative, but may have a malevolent hidden agenda. And at their destination, a crew supervisor (Chad Bruce) grows ever more duplicitous as his fellow miners’ situation worsens.
Hensleigh says he took inspiration from “The Wages of Fear” (as well as “Of Mice and Men” for the Mike/Gurty relationship). But “The Ice Road” soon feels less akin to that French classic, or Friedkin’s equally nail-biting remake “Sorcerer,” than it does the jerry-built pile of yee-haw cliffhangers in his screenplay for “Armageddon” nearly a quarter-century ago. If he’s not quite so lead-footed a director as Michael Bay, he similarly can’t stop equating “more” with “better.”
So after a while, all credibility of physical action and jeopardy is abandoned for an endless domino chain of crises: avalanche, assassins on snowmobiles, snapping bridge cables, skewering by pine branch, plain old mano-a-mano combat and so on. Eventually the vibe is close to a cross between “True Lies” and “Smokey and the Bandit” — though those movies took nothing seriously, while despite a certain degree of humor, this one does not intend for audiences to find its parade of perils absurd. Entirely shot in Manitoba, it’s nonetheless too hectically contrived to render vivid the constant lethal threat of extreme cold above or below the water line. There’s no patience here for any menace so prosaic.
The overloaded thrills are also compromised at times by variable CGI work, though in general “The Ice Road” is executed in solidly professional if not particularly stylish or imaginative fashion. Less angst-ridden, and less of a solo protagonist than in many recent vehicles, Neeson (who at the brink of 70 may be the oldest-ever action star still in his commercial prime) is solid as usual. Other principal players Thomas, Midthunder, Walker and Fishburne are fine within the limits of their roles. Max Aruj contributes exactly the kind of bombastic orchestral score you’d expect, and the soundtrack is further filled out with some testimonies to the formulaic mediocrity too typical among today’s mainstream country music acts.