The Ice Road, 2021.
Written and Directed by Jonathan Hensleigh.
Starring Liam Neeson, Amber Midthunder, Benjamin Walker, Laurence Fishburne, Holt McCallany, Matt McCoy, Martin Sensmeier, Matt Salinger, BJ Verot, Bradley Sawatzky, Chad Bruce, Adam Hurtig, Bradley Sawatzky, Marshall Williams, Paul Essiembre, Arne MacPherson, Gabriel Daniels, and Jake Kennerd.
After a remote diamond mine collapses in far northern Canada, a ‘big-rig’ ice road driver must lead an impossible rescue mission over a frozen ocean to save the trapped miners.
For anyone tired of watching Liam Neeson pick up guns, killing criminals, saving family members, or stopping terrorists (sometimes a combination of all three in one movie), one positive thing there is to say about The Ice Road is that it’s a refreshing way of giving the senior action star something within his late-career wheelhouse that’s about similar and different. But, unfortunately, that’s also where anything nice there is to say ends. Written and directed by Jonathan Hensleigh (let me put it this way, 20 minutes in, I started thinking of Michael Bay’s Armageddon, which IMDb served as a reminder that he wrote that blockbuster) has a noble goal of tipping respect to blue-collar big-rig drivers transporting a variety of items across dangerous ice roads. So even without someone like Liam Neeson attached, there’s a cool concept here ripe with potential for perilous strife and vehicular carnage, or say, Mad Max on ice.
The Ice Road is immediately in trouble from the get-go, as Liam Neeson’s everyday man Mike McCann can’t hold down a job because his PTSD managing Iraq war veteran aphasiac brother Gurty (Marcus Thomas) is a constant target for bullying. Mike’s co-workers treat Gurty as subhuman and go as far as using a slur for the mentally disabled, to which the former responds with a beatdown. Now, research is turning up nothing, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say Marcus Thomas is neither mentally impaired nor does he suffer from aphasia. As a physically disabled person myself, it’s whatever; I wouldn’t wish an actual disabled person to have to take part in this garbage even if there were an arch-nemesis. The Peanut Butter Falcon, this is not.
What’s offputting is that for a hero (Mike and Gurty quickly land on their feet taking a risky job across the treacherous titular ice road delivering a wellhead to rescue trapped underground Canadian miners), he occasionally crosses the line from understandably frustrated to outright verbally (and at one point punching him) abuse that is forced and mean-spirited. Why the movie even needs sibling drama is a mystery in and of itself, let alone a disabled character that adds nothing but out-of-place sentimental nonsense. There’s nothing sincere or empowering about the inclusion of the character.
Jonathan Hensleigh also doesn’t have much of a choice but to crack The Ice Road with subplots of melodrama and betrayal because, outside of one thrilling sequence in the middle with ice rising in front and falling apart behind the rig, he never quite figures out how to make this exciting. Making up the rescue team alongside Mike and Gurty are veteran ice road driver Goldenrod (Laurence Fishburne), political activist also experienced with risky terrain traversal and sister to one of the miners currently dying from asphyxiation Tantoo (Amber Midthunder), and an advisor working for the payment company named Varnay (Benjamin Walker). It should be a given that there’s pretty much no movie if this group (split up into three big-rigs) traveled all the way there with no issues, and it’s also not a stretch to say someone could figure out who the traitor is just from reading this review.
Mike is also giving prejudice tendencies, shifting the blame to Tantoo when the mission goes sideways. Tantoo is often referred to as “you people” by another character, as our protagonist goes along with that just because there also needs to be a redemption arc. Again, the problem isn’t that characters are complex and a little racist; it’s that The Ice Road is so empty as a slice of big-budget spectacle that it shoves in an overwhelming amount of misguided social points no one is going to care about. Jonathan Hensleigh seems to think racism is solved by someone saying, “I really misjudged you,” after the obvious truth comes to light.
There’s also some other predictable conspiracy drama going on with the dying workers, who slowly come to realize that they were meant to be expended. Nevertheless, there is still the cliché of someone suggesting they reduce their numbers for a better chance of survival. Unfortunately, none of them are particularly memorable characters, contributing to the idea that this movie never rises above its early idea stages, doomed to revel in the superfluous drama that has nothing to do with paying tribute to real-life ice road drivers. And the few action scenes that are here aren’t exactly entertaining. If anything, they are routinely distracting from failing at hiding Liam Neeson’s stunt double.
The execution is so poor that it’s also a struggle to muster up any enthusiastic reaction to the gorgeous setting (especially when shown wide-reaching shots of endless ice that looks like it could fall apart at any second) or worthwhile visual effects. Between the racist characters, uncomfortably aggressive behavior towards the disabled, and failure to focus on this line of work (which extends to unremarkable set pieces), The Ice Road sinks before gaining any momentum whatsoever.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com