The Ice Road: Review
The Ice Road Synopsis: After a remote diamond mine collapses in the far northern regions of Canada, an ice driver (Liam Neeson) leads an implausible rescue mission over a frozen ocean to save the lives of trapped miners despite thawing waters and a threat they never see coming.
Liam Neeson’s decade-plus tenure as an everyman action star generated huge tallies at the box office. After a few mixed bag offerings (Honest Thief and The Marksman kept theaters afloat during the dire pandemic), Neeson now finds himself joining the ranks of streaming movie stars. It’s the ultimate sign of the evolving times, displaying just how much the theatrical marketplace continues to change amidst more restrictive, blockbuster-oriented regiments.
With Neeson’s Netflix debut, The Ice Road, Neeson changes hats as a truck driver set with an impossible mission amidst frosty northern Canada conditions. Neeson’s resume is chock-full of thanklessly generic actioners, which often find the star sifting through menial job positions while embracing the genre’s eye for ridiculously over-the-top entertainment. The Ice Road is perhaps his most shameless romp yet, but that’s not necessarily a negative statement.
By embracing the formula of relentless thrill rides from yesteryear, writer/director Jonathan Hensleigh finds himself as an adept fit for the material’s cheeky allures (Hensleigh co-wrote 90’s staples like Die Hard with a Vengeance and Jumanji before writing and directing the 2004 Punisher reboot). Hensleigh’s more traditional sensibilities fit this material like a glove, with his serviceable screenplay imbuing just enough realism and revolving steaks to keep audiences invested.
The decision to employ more of an ensemble-oriented approach performs wonders for the material’s fairly dated contrivances. Between Neeson’s deadly ice road mission and the miners stuck below dangerous conditions, Hensleigh wisely keeps the pace moving at a frenetic clip while not getting hung up on painfully generic character-building devices. A strong balance between real-world textures and Hollywoodized theatrics also works to keep this familiar formula afloat. Hensleigh’s direction values practical sets and clever ingenuity over bombastic setpieces, allowing the material to retain a grounded edge alongside its campier aspirations. The action scenes are filmed with enough competence and machismo gusto to forgive their slight nature.
Like a hull truck speeding down a steep hill, The Ice Road’s taunt momentum can’t stop for much development. However, that doesn’t prevent Liam Neeson from continuing to elevate everyman roles. As a driver trying to take care of his special needs brother, the actor’s hardened personality draws instant gravity onscreen. Few can deliver goofy one-liners and tired exposition with such poise and personality, with the 69-year-old showing no signs of slowing down as a gruff action hero.
While The Ice Road succeeds within its regimented genre parameters, the film’s restrictive formula does limit the material significantly. An over-reliance on dated stereotypes creates a laborsome aftertaste throughout much of the film’s plot-driven sections. Neeson’s special needs brother is easily the starkest example, with Marcus Thomas’ poor casting and the film’s general over-simplification morphing the role into a painfully dated plot device. I also wish the film developed even a semblance of substantive undertones. The Ice Road’s breezy narrative passes by without drawing a significant interest point, likely making this entry disappear amongst Neeson’s busy catalog (there’s an underlying look at shady industry practices, but it goes nowhere).
Despite the lingering disposability, The Ice Road works as a high-throttle romp that achieves just enough to elevate its straightforward mechanics. Netflix could make for a great new home for Neeson’s brand of dopey machismo actioners, with this film’s low-steaks allures working nicely alongside streaming’s easy-going reach.