Film Review: “The Ice Road” Has Some Cracks, but Is Still a Fundamentally Sound Environmental Thriller
Written by: Matt Patti | June 25th, 2021
The Ice Road (Jonathan Hensleigh, 2021) 2½ out of 4 stars.
During the winters in the northern United States and Canada, some big-rig truckers traverse frozen rivers made of ice less than 30 inches thick in order to transport supplies to remote locations. Known to be high-risk and extremely dangerous, they refer to these pathways as “ice roads.” Of course, once springtime comes around, the rivers melt and the tractor-trailers rest until the next winter. However, the most dangerous time to be on the road is that grey area between winter and spring where the temperatures are gradually rising and the “roads” are slowly melting. Most drivers avoid the roads at all costs during this period.
In Netflix’s The Ice Road, however, writer-director Jonathan Hensleigh (Kill the Irishman) throws his characters on the titular path at that exact inconvenient time as part of a desperate rescue mission. In the film, an explosion traps several miners inside of a mountain near Winnipeg, Canada. The remote area is not equipped to handle the situation and time is of the essence; therefore, truckers from North Dakota are called upon to deliver equipment that is capable of getting the miners out of the mountain. In a race against the clock, down-on-his-luck Mike (Liam Neeson, The Commuter) and his intellectually challenged brother Gurty (Marcus Thomas, Kill the Irishman) join a crew under the supervision of the well-respected Goldenrod (Laurence Fishburne, John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum) to haul three tractor-trailers full of parts up to the mountain, via the ice road. Will the group be able to cross the unstable ice safely, and can they make it to Winnipeg in time to save the stranded miners?
As far as eco-thrillers go, The Ice Road is one of the better ones I’ve seen. Not only are there plenty of tense, edge-of-your seat sequences that thrill, but the characters are also compelling, which is a major win for these kinds of films. Liam Neeson and Laurence Fishburne give great performances, as expected, propelling them far above everyone else. The rest of the cast is hit or miss, with some cringey line delivery weighing down otherwise decent performances. However, it is the motivations that keep these supporting characters intriguing. Some genuinely care about saving the miners, others only seem to be in it for the money, and others have more mysterious agendas. The relationship between Mike and Gurty is also captivating, as they have a love-and-hate affair, sometimes working well together and at other times becoming extremely aggravated with each other. Through this characterization, we care about most of the crew and anxiously hope that they’ll make it through the ice road unscathed. The characters, their backgrounds and their motivations help to make this film a cut above most other films of its kind.
Unfortunately, some faults in the film put it on thin ice at times. There are many scenes of long, on-the-nose exposition that over-explain processes that the audience likely doesn’t need all the details of in the first place. The film is also filled with clichés avid filmgoers have seen many times, making some of the intended surprises very easy to spot long before they’re revealed. The runtime is also a bit long and the plot drags a bit at certain points when the viewer already knows where the film is headed and wonders why it hasn’t gotten there yet. Finally, although the rescue-mission crew is made up of well-fleshed-out characters, the miners trapped in the mountain – the reason that this film happens in the first place – are unfortunately not nearly as interesting. I couldn’t tell you the name or any details about any of the trapped miners, as they are very dull and uninspiring. There are very few scenes with them, which makes sense in the spirit of focusing on the main rescue crew more. However, the miners are in the film enough to warrant at least some sort of stand-out character to emerge amongst them, but one never does.
In the end, The Ice Road is an above-average environmental eco-thriller with intense sequences, relatable, layered characters, and a plot that offers more than meets the eye. The film is nothing that you haven’t seen before, but it does its job well for the type of movie it is and gives us a little something extra, too. I think most people who go into it expecting a well-executed, fun, and suspenseful story about truckers driving over icy rivers will be pleased. There are a few cracks in the foundation, but overall The Ice Road holds up and delivers an exciting, engaging experience amidst a frosty landscape.