Review: Liam Neeson is driving force of Netflix action disaster flick ‘The Ice Road’

WTOP's Jason Fraley reviews 'The Ice Road'

If you crave a combustible driving mission, check out “The Wages of Fear” (1953).

If you want a gripping tale of a cave collapse, check out “Ace in the Hole” (1951).

If you want something that never pretends to be either of those, check out the new action disaster flick “The Ice Road,” which is content revving up genre thrills at home on Netflix.

Set in icy Manitoba, Canada, the film opens with a methane explosion that collapses a remote diamond mine, killing eight men and trapping 26. They have only 30 hours of oxygen, so they call a North Dakota trucker to lead a dangerous rescue convoy, driving three 65,000-pound rigs across fragile “ice roads” to deliver a wellhead to dig the men out.

At 69, Liam Neeson is still one of the few appointment-viewing stars, having proven his art chops in “Schindler’s List” (1993) and action-hero status in “Taken” (2008). His Mike McCann is a loner bouncing from job to job, tuning his radio to Jason Isbell’s cover of Johnny Cash’s “All I Do Is Drive,” in the vein of Eddie Rabbitt’s “Driving My Life Away.”

The second truck is helmed by grizzled vet Jim Goldenrod (Laurence Fishburne, who deserves more screentime), while the third truck is driven by Tantoo (Amber Midthunder), an ex-con whose brother is trapped in the mine. They’re joined by Mike’s mentally disabled brother Gurty (Marcus Thomas) and pushy insurance agent Varnay (Benjamin Walker).

I bet you can figure out who is reliable, who is a liability and who might just sabotage the mission. Predictability is a road often traveled and the film’s believability thaws the further we get. Early character deaths are both shocking and commendably permanent, but by the second half, villains seemingly die and come back to life just to keep the action going.

Other script choices strain credibility in a risk-reward analysis. Why would Mike take his mentally disabled brother on such a dangerous mission? Sure, it’s a chance for brotherly bonding like “Rain Man” (1988), but if he is outraged that a hospital would medicate him for PTSD, why present triggers like roaring engines, cracking ice and bitter temperatures?

Moreover, why risk the mission at all? Why can’t the wellhead be delivered by airplane or helicopter to rescue the trapped miners? Why risk driving across roads that are thawing in April? It doesn’t seem to be a well-thought-out mission — and maybe that’s the point. Bureaucratic decisions can be baffling, sometimes intentionally so, to save a few bucks.

If you can get past these plot holes and logical fallacies, there’s plenty of thrilling action by writer/director Jonathan Hensleigh, who cowrote “Armageddon” (1998) with J.J. Abrams and Tony Gilroy. Here, Hensleigh maximizes the cracking ice for maximum suspense, tapping into the frozen tundra of the landscape like a lesser “Snowpiercer” (2013).

Ultimately, the film becomes its premise, starting on sturdy ground before cracking on thin ice, coming dangerously close to an all-out avalanche, but eventually limping across the finish line thanks to Neeson’s believable grit, determination and eternal brotherly love.

In a theatrical world, it might not be worth paying to go see, but thankfully many folks already have a Netflix subscription, so fire up a bowl of popcorn and enjoy the ride.

2.5 stars

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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