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The Ice Road
Written and directed by Jonathan Hensleigh
Starring Liam Neeson, Holt McCallany and Laurence Fishburne
Classification PG; 103 minutes
Liam Neeson will fight anything. Ever since the actor has embraced the deliciously junky sub-genre that I’m going to call Daddy Action, the man has battled gangsters (Run All Night, The Commuter), sex traffickers (Taken), skyjackers (Non-Stop), corrupt politicians (Widows), drug cartels (The Marksman) and wolves (The Grey). Wolves! But with the new film The Ice Road, Liam Neeson is up against his greatest enemy ever: melting ice.
Yes, writer-director Jonathan Hensleigh’s thriller finally finds a foe – Mother Nature – worthy of going toe to toe with our generation’s most improbable butt-kicker. An absolutely bananas mashup of History Television’s Ice Road Truckers reality series, the best and worst of the Die Hard franchise and just about every post-Taken project in Neeson’s disturbingly dense filmography, The Ice Road is destined to go down as one of the actor’s best-worst movies. It is a pure trashterpiece that must be seen to be believed.
Bonus points, too, if you’re from Canada. Because this entry in Neeson’s Daddy Action canon takes place in none other a frosty locale than northern Manitoba. It is here where a remote diamond mine suddenly collapses and the dozen men trapped inside have only one hope for rescue: A truck driver crazy enough to cross a road made of thawing ice in order to deliver the necessary excavation machinery.
Enter: Neeson’s haggard hero Mike, a down-on-his-luck long-hauler looking for some quick cash to help him start a new life with his younger brother, the war-traumatized Gurty (Marcus Thomas). To help Mike and Gurty (yes, Gurty!) with their mission is Laurence Fishburne’s Jim Goldenrod (yes, Goldenrod!), who assembles the team with a Nick Fury-on-a-budget swagger. Oh, and we also get characters with non-ridiculous-movie names including trapped mine boss Rene Lampard (Holt McCallany), insurance actuary Varnay (Benjamin Walker), and … you know what, never mind.
What matters most is the action, which is 100-per-cent absurd. At first, it’s limited to trucks racing ahead of quickly cracking ice. But then we also somehow get CGI ice waves, truck vs. snowmobile races, gun fights and the longest, slowest, coldest fist fight you will ever see. The thrills here are both cheap and oddly, comfortingly captivating. Of course nothing can ever kill Liam Neeson, but it is a whole lot of no-brain-necessary fun to watch everyone and everything try. How tough is Neeson’s Mike? So tough that he almost never wears a tuque, even in the middle of a Manitoban winter.
In between the c’moooooon-man set-pieces, veteran screenwriter Hensleigh (Die Hard with a Vengeance, Jumanji, The Saint) throws in a handful of predictable developments that rip off everything from Aliens to Sorcerer to his own screenplay for Armageddon, which was another adventure featuring blue-collar heroes lugging heavy machinery across a treacherous environment. It is all extremely, irrepressibly stupid. You know that, minute by minute, you’re getting dumber watching The Ice Road. But you don’t exactly want to stop grinning like a goof, either.
This bad-wait-maybe-good tension will be felt all that much more deeply by Canadian audiences, given how much random Canuck-pandering is peppered throughout the script. I’m still chuckling about the moment when Mike is greeted toward the end of the film with what Hensleigh assumes must be the most comforting words imaginable: “I’m deputy minister for natural resources of Canada!” (The downside of being Canadian, though: The Ice Road is streaming on Netflix in the United States, but due to rights issues, it’s only available here as a premium video-on-demand rental).
At this point, it should be noted that The Ice Road isn’t even Neeson’s first cold-weather thriller. It’s been only two years since the actor starred in Cold Pursuit, in which he played a small-town snow-plow driver exacting bloody revenge against the drug dealers who pushed his son into addiction. We could even put the subgenre count at three pictures, if counting Missile Tow, the fake Liam Neeson-as-a-killer-tow-truck-driver movie (tagline: “Get hitched this Christmas”) hidden inside the margins of Daddy’s Home 2.
So at the end of The Ice Road, two truths emerge: Liam Neeson gets lots of bad scripts, and Liam Neeson does not own a good pair of reading glasses.
And for pointing out this hard reality, I’m willing to accept that Neeson’s next mission may involve travelling back to Canada, where he’ll hunt down a pesky film critic. Come at me, Daddy.
The Ice Road is available across digital and on-demand platforms, including Apple TV/iTunes, Google Play and the Cineplex Store, starting June 25.
In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a Critic’s Pick designation across all coverage.