Set in the icy tundra of Manitoba, Canada, The Ice Road is a race-against-time action thriller that pits Liam Neeson not only against thin ice roads that could crack at any minute but also corporate greed.
After a methane explosion in a diamond mine underground leaves 24 trapped and several dead with only 36 hours of oxygen to survive, a rescue team is hastily assembled to haul heavy cargo across ice roads during warmer weather where the ice is much thinner and more fragile than usual.
In charge of this brigade is the respectable Jim Goldenrod (Laurence Fishburne), who offers a total of $200,000 to be split equally among the drivers if they make it. Comprising this rag-tag group is a gruff and terse Mark (Liam Neeson) and his brother Gurty (Marcus Thomas). They’re both desperately searching for new work after being fired on account of Mark punching a co-worker for taunting his brother’s PTSD-related aphasia (an inability to communicate). The kamikaze mission is also joined by recently released from prison Native American Tantoo (Amber Midthunder) and insurance assessor Tom Varnay (Benjamin Walker), who contain secrets that spiral the mission off its course.
Taking its cinematic cues from the French film The Wages of Fear (1953), or perhaps its American remake Sorcerer (1977), both of which include the storyline of drivers transporting explosive nitro-glycerine across bumpy terrain. The Ice Road fails to generate anywhere near the edge-of-your-seat tension its predecessors did.
On the one hand, the cinematography impressively frames the ice roads with an endless horizon that creates a sense of being trapped in an abyss. For example, when Mark plunges into the freezing water, potentially sacrificing himself to save his brother, the camera holds back in a wide shot for several seconds, allowing the viewer to lean in to hear or see if they are alive. Even though it is unlikely Liam Neeson’s character in any movie would unceremoniously die halfway through, it still imbues trepidation in what is the only effective moment of the film.
Otherwise, the film is entirely repetitive and dull, switching back-and-forth between the trapped miners and the drivers with barely any progression in their dialogue. The script, too, is problematic as the opening scene where Gurty is bullied for his condition seems extracted from a school playground. Even throughout the film, Gurty is abused and harangued by other characters for his impediments rather than treated humanely.
The Ice Road showcases a gruff and grumbly Neeson taking the reins of a poor script with few narrative twists. Although a talented cast cobble together a semblance of intrigue, much better examples of the sub-genre exist elsewhere.
This is the first film directed by Jonathan Hensleigh in 10 years. His last feature length film was Kill the Irishman (2011).