It’s been a long time since peak Liam Neesoning, and at this point, his gruff, imposing presence can only do so much to make a movie watchable. Despite its many perils, both natural and human, “The Ice Road” is surprisingly dull. It’s definitely not as crazy as it should have been, given the setting and the stakes. And while writer/director Jonathan Hensleigh establishes a foreboding tone with impressive, widescreen vistas of unforgiving, snowy expanses, his action sequences remain unexceptional.
Hensleigh begins with an explosion at a remote diamond mine in far northern Manitoba, Canada, which traps about two dozen men inside. While they bicker about methane levels and tap out messages on pipes to the outside world, equipment to free them slowly makes its way in their direction. Neeson’s Mike McCann is part of a three-truck convoy that must trek across treacherous ice roads—plowed pathways carved across massive frozen lakes—to reach their eventual destination. In the passenger seat is Mike’s younger brother, Gurty (Marcus Thomas), a mechanic and Iraq war veteran suffering from PTSD and aphasia. Also along for the journey are Laurence Fishburne’s Jim Goldenrod, the longtime trucker who organized this mission, and Amber Midthunder’s Tantoo, a troublemaking Native woman who’s also a daring driver. (Coincidentally, her brother is among the men trapped in the mine, so This Time, It’s Personal.) Tagging along is a city slicker corporate actuary who may have nefarious intent (Benjamin Walker, the only one who recognizes this B-movie material for what it is).
Tantoo helpfully lays out the tricky balancing act the truckers must strike in trying to traverse this hazardous stretch—in April, of all months. They can’t go too slow or too fast as they carry their heavy gear. They must look out for pressure waves ahead of them and cracks behind them, obstacles which provide a couple of legitimately tense moments here. But while that exposition is crucial, too often characters stand around explaining things to each other in “The Ice Road.” And yet, they remain barely developed and unengaging. Mike yelling “Kiss my Irish ass!” to a doctor trying to prescribe opioids to his brother is a given, not a revelation. Hensleigh bounces back and forth between the drivers and the miners, but the people we’re supposed to care about as they gasp for breath are essentially interchangeable, and it’s hard to tell who’s who since it’s so dark in there.