The idea of marrying the reality-TV staple “Ice Road Truckers” with the suspense classic “The Wages of Fear” — about long-haul drivers trying to get through treacherous mountain roads with a payload of nitroglycerin — isn’t a bad one in theory. In practice, however, “The Ice Road” is so often inept and heavy-handed that not even the reliable presence of Liam Neeson can rescue it.
Neeson has become a genre unto himself in recent years, starring in one movie after another about a regular guy (with a special set of skills) who finds himself in extraordinary circumstances. (This latest is his second in 2021 alone.) But while the Irish actor reliably hits both his marks and the bad guys, he’s doing so in a film that’s leadenly predictable when it’s not unintentionally laugh-out-loud funny.
Some of those laughs come from the screenplay by director Jonathan Hensleigh (“Kill the Irishman”), which trots out chestnuts like, “You’ll never get away with this!” without a twinkle of irony. But “The Ice Road” really falls apart in the big action sequences; apparently, no one budgeted for realistic-looking explosions, avalanches, or shattering ice in a film that contains at least one of those elements every five minutes. (Heck, sometimes even the trucks look phony.)
The plot, at least, gives Neeson’s trucker Mike the opportunity to get angry early and often, first at the trucker bullies who pick on Mike’s brother Gurty (Marcus Thomas), a veteran suffering from PTSD, and then at the VA doctors who want to pump Gurty full of meds. (Gurty’s sentence constructions are indecipherable to everyone but Mike, so other people constantly assume he has developmental issues.)
When there’s a methane explosion at a diamond mine in Manitoba, it seems next to impossible to get the heavy equipment necessary to rescue the trapped miners, since it’s late in the season, and the ice roads are beginning to thaw. But the Canadian government is willing to pay big bucks, so Mike, Gurty, hot-headed Tantoo (Amber Midthunder, “Roswell, New Mexico”), and Jim Goldenrod (Laurence Fishburne) take the assignment, with the mining company’s claims adjuster Varney (Benjamin Walker, “Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter”) in tow, mainly to ask questions about trucking on behalf of the audience.
While the trapped miners come closer and closer to running out of air, the truckers encounter challenges of their own, from the fluctuating ground beneath them to what appear to be acts of sabotage. The reveals about who’s doing what and why will surprise absolutely no one, and the noblest efforts of editor Douglas Crise (“The Beach Bum”) aren’t enough to generate genuine thrills or suspense, despite the John Williams–lite score by Max Aruj (“Lansky”) working itself into a froth.
Neeson and Midthunder do what they can to turn these stock character types into actual characters, which is more than Walker or Matt McCoy (as a mining exec) bother to do. (Matt Salinger pops up at the finale as the mining company CEO, and he seems to be angling to be the next Josef Sommer.) Fishburne can, of course, read the iTunes user agreement and make it riveting, and as the character stuck with the most exposition, that’s essentially what he does here.
There’s a decent little B-movie dying to crawl out of this mess, but let “The Ice Road” be a lesson to other mid-budget producers — just because your movie is premiering on Netflix rather than in theaters, as this one is doing, it doesn’t mean you can skimp on making fire look like fire and ice look like ice.
“The Ice Road” premieres June 25 on Netflix.