Liam Neeson stars as an ice road trucker hauling a wellhead across the frozen Canadian tundra in order to save trapped miners before they run out of oxygen in The Ice Road, an thoroughly silly but breathlessly fun new thriller now streaming on Netflix in the United States and Amazon Prime in the UK.
The Ice Road’s lengthy procedural-like setup details the events following an explosion at an isolated mine in Manitoba, Canada that leaves 26 miners including Rene Lampard (Wrath of Man’s Holt McCallany) and Cody (Martin Sensmeier) trapped inside with their oxygen supply quickly depleting.
How to get them out? A powerful wellhead is needed to break through the rocks, but the closest ones are hundreds of miles away and need to be delivered by heavy trucks across frozen Canadian lakes that are beginning to thaw in April.
Mine boss George Sickle (Matt McCoy) phones up CEO Thomason (Matt Salinger) who reaches out (through a few more characters) to ice road trucker Jim Goldenrod (Laurence Fishburne), who places an alert for any truckers in the area to sign up for the dangerous – but lucrative – once-in-a-lifetime job.
And after thirty minutes of exposition in The Ice Road, we finally get to our Liam Neeson action movie as down-on-his-luck North Dakota trucker Mike McCann (Neeson) signs up for the gig along with his mechanic brother Gurty (Marcus Thomas), a war vet who suffers from aphasia and PTSD.
Together with Goldenrod, trucker Tantoo (Amber Midthunder), who happens to be the sister of trapped miner Cody, and corporate watchdog Jim Varnay (Benjamin Walker), three trucks each carrying a wellhead that could save the trapped miners sets out on a dangerous journey across frozen Canadian lakes.
The disaster movie setup is inherently compelling, and the character backstories and disparate motivations of each driver equally so: The Ice Road is something like Wages of Fear with a ticking-clock rescue storyline, and its first half, culminating with a scene in which one of the trucks breaks through the ice and needs to be pulled out by the other two, is exceptionally well-crafted for this kind of thing.
Shortly afterwards, unfortunately, writer-director Jonathan Hensleigh feels the need to pump The Ice Road’s stakes up to 11 with the introduction of a human villain trying to sabotage the delivery of the wellheads.
This is not only a redundant addition to an already-intense scenario, but an increasingly silly distraction that takes the narrative far off course. The character pops up around every corner like Dick Dastardly in Wacky Races attempting to sabotage our heroes again and again, and The Ice Road turns into a familiar fisticuffs story of Neeson versus bad guy instead of the intense real-world rescue movie that the first half promised.
The climax of The Ice Road also results in some large-scale action set pieces that the film did not have the budget to realistically convey, while earlier scenes of the trucks creeping across frozen lakes were more than sufficient to deliver top-tier thrills.
But The Ice Road moves fast enough to overcome the wrong turns it takes, and manages to deliver the goods with one final punch from Neeson. This isn’t the ice road trucker version of Wages of Fear the first half of the film promises, but it’s a fully entertaining run through the frozen Canadian tundra that will often leave you on the edge of your seat.
Among recent Liam Neeson action movies that include The Marksman, Honest Thief, and Cold Pursuit, The Ice Road ranks among the silliest, but also the most exciting.