The Ice Road
Starring Liam Neeson, Laurence Fishburne and Amber Midthunder
● 108 minutes
● Debuts Friday on VOD platforms
★★ 1/2 stars out of five
Early in his life, writer-director Jonathan Hensleigh saw the 1953 Henri-George Clouzot thriller The Wages of Fear, and his future career as a filmmaker was sealed. Hensleigh would go on to pen films such as Armageddon, The Rock, Jumanji and Die Hard with a Vengeance, all of which are stamped in the template of ill-assorted adventurers taking on a deadly mission.
The Ice Road, while not a remake of The Wages of Fear, is his most explicit homage. Instead of carrying nitroglycerine to stop a raging oil fire, three semi trailers are assigned the task of transporting three massively heavy cast iron wellheads to far-northern Manitoba, where a diamond mine collapse is threatening to slowly extinguish the lives of the miners trapped inside.
Hensleigh signed on to both write and direct the film, which was shot in Winnipeg and various Manitoba locations in early 2020, with the COVID crisis coming close to shutting down the production in March of that year. It was apparently the last film to remain in production in all of North America as the pandemic swept over the world.
Liam Neeson stars as Mike, a trucker whose fate is tied to his brother Gurty (Marcus Thomas), a veteran whose abilities as a mechanic are hampered by the effects of PTSD. With employment options diminished, Mike and Gurty sign on with Winnipeg truck company owner Goldenrod (Laurence Fishburne), who takes on the challenge when the call goes out for three trucks to transport those wellheads over the unnervingly thinning ice roads of Manitoba’s lakes.
Goldenrod himself drives another truck, and yet another is driven by Tantoo (Amber Midthunder), an Indigenous activist with a stake in the mission. Her own brother Cody (Martin Sensmeier) is among the trapped miners. Along for the ride is Varnay (Benjamin Walker), who represents the interests of the mining company, while also serving as chief exposition accommodater when he asks questions about the ins and outs of ice road trucking.
Suffice to say: Treachery is afoot, although it’s never satisfactorily explained, beyond the fact that the mining company may be resorting to extremes when it comes to covering up sketchy business practices.
It is a problem for the film that the audience is required to not look too closely at the details, especially since the film is going out of its way to provide you with unique perils, including ice roads that not only crack but undulate like a waterbed when trucks pass over them. (Stability is an illusion: It’s kind of a nifty metaphor for a pandemic, when you think of it.)
Likewise, something problematic pervades the overall movie. The editing seems rushed and abstruse. For example, how do two trucks that have fallen on their sides manage to right themselves on a barren lake? A couple of insert shots of motors and pulleys ask the audience to take it on faith. Shots that should have a shocking effect -- say, a badly broken leg -- barely make an impact. Fight scenes just seem like wild thrashing. One suspects the culprit may be the challenges of pandemic post-production. Unlike the movie’s villain, the guilty party is not obvious.
Also, notwithstanding his early inspiration, Hensleigh’s approach is very much spliced with Hollywood genetic material. Hensleigh has no interest in drilling into the existentential despair that made The Wages of Fear such an anti-Hollywood property. The Ice Road’s overall disposition is comparatively sunny.
Still, as Mike, Neeson manages to sell the premise on sheer, hangdog presence. Amber Midthunder makes for an interesting, angry counterpoint to Mike’s apathy. And look for a healthy component of local actors in supporting roles, including Paul Essiembre, Adam Hurtig, Marshall Williams, Harry Nelken, Gabriel Daniels and Arne MacPherson.
In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.