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VOD Review: The Ice Road

June 25, 2021

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

Liam Neeson has made such a career out of playing grizzled older men who are forced to become action heroes in extreme situations that you can practically copy and paste his name into any high stakes premise and have yourself a pretty bankable thriller.

Earlier this year, we got Neeson as a rancher turned border patroller helping a young immigrant kid escape cartel violence in The Marksman. Now we get Neeson as a big-rig truck driver on an ice road transporting equipment needed to free trapped Canadian miners in writer-director Jonathan Hensleigh’s The Ice Road.

Make no mistakes, The Ice Road is a clichéd film. It plays out with a premise that could have been written on the back of a napkin, and fits so cleanly into the aforementioned Liam Neeson genre that you could be forgiven for thinking it was a made up movie in another movie. But the film is also more fun than I expected it to be, and does serve up a fair bit of suspense. While admittedly cheesy and at times physically implausible, it modestly works as an unpretentious thriller that gets the job done as a piece of enjoyable white-knuckle entertainment.

Neeson stars as Mike, a North Dakota truck driver who answers an emergency call to drive across a thawing Manitoba ice road in April to deliver equipment to a diamond mine in Northern Canada. The mine has caved in, trapping 26 men inside, and they only have about thirty hours to survive before their oxygen runs out. A team is being assembled by organizer Goldenrod (Laurence Fishburne), and Mike is chosen to lead a fleet of three long-haulers each carrying a heavy load of piping and a 25-ton wellhead, that must be driven across the frozen lake.

The team also includes Mike’s disabled brother Gurty (Marcus Thomas), a veteran with PTSD and aphasia who is a brilliant mechanic; a young Cree woman named Tantoo (Amber Midthunder) who was in jail for protesting and takes the job in exchange for bail; and Varnay (Benjamin Walker), a corporate tag-along from the mining company. Tantoo also has personal reasons for joining the fleet, with her brother (Martin Sensmeier) among the trapped miners.

They will get $200,000 split between them if the mission is completed, with their individual shares increasing if any member doesn’t make it, which is a very real possibility. The drivers face any number of dangers, ranging from pressure waves creating cracks in the ice, to corporate malfeasance. We cut back and forth between the drivers on the road and the miners trapped underground, who are going through their own dramatic fight for survival as the clock ticks down and their oxygen rapidly depletes.

The story beats are mostly predictable, and the dialogue is often clunky, with an expositional quality to it. The film also increasingly defies the laws of physics as it goes along and the obstacles stack up, with some moments bordering on ridiculous. But I’ll be darned if The Ice Road didn’t keep me entertained while it was on. Neeson doesn’t exactly stretch his acting muscles here, but he provides a dependable onscreen presence as growls rote lines like “this is personal” and “now I’m angry,” which is exactly what we want from him in these sorts of films.

Hensleigh’s filmmaking approach has an economical quality to it, effectively setting up the stakes and then playing out with a number of ticking clock devices. The film was shot by cinematographer Tom Stern, who has worked with Clint Eastwood on a number of films, and we do get some impressive shots from underneath the ice, showing small cracks and water bubbles that threaten to sink the trucks. The result is a surprisingly entertaining B-movie thrill ride that builds a solid amount of suspense as it goes along, providing a pretty fun entry into the Liam Neeson action movie genre.

The Ice Road is now available on a variety of Digital and VOD platforms. It’s being distributed in Canada by VVS Films.

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