When Liam Neeson’s trucker thriller The Ice Road was first announced, some wondered with more than a little concern if it might be an updated remake of the classic 1953 French thriller The Wages of Fear. Oh, great, went the thought. Another dumbed-down Americanized version of a beloved foreign film. (Henri Goerges Clouzot’s picture, about trucks filled with highly unstable and explosive nitroglycerine traveling through perilous mountain roads, had already been remade once by William Friedkin as Sorcerer, which was a flop in 1977 but has since also become a classic.) Now that The Ice Road, written and directed by Jonathan Hensleigh, is here, two things are clear: (1) It is not a remake of The Wages of Fear, and (2) you might wish it were.
The premise does initially feel like a riff on Clouzot’s masterpiece (which was based on a novel by Georges Arnaud). A methane explosion at a Canadian diamond mine traps dozens of souls inside. In order to drill and cap the methane pocket and free the men, a 30-ton gas wellhead is needed. But such a thing cannot be flown to such a remote area: Big planes can’t land there, and a helicopter can’t carry that kind of weight. The only way to do it is with trucks, and the only way for those trucks to get there in time is to take the so-called ice roads — actual paths that have been created on frozen northern lakes and are only used in the winter months when the ice is thick enough. It’s now late April, all the regular drivers have left, and the roads are off limits.
Nevertheless, our heroes will take them anyway. There are three trucks with three wellheads as insurance, in case one or two don’t make it. One is driven by Mike McCann (Neeson) and his Iraq vet brother Gurty (Marcus Thomas), who is an expert mechanic but also has a mental disability owing to his wartime experiences; another is driven by Jim Goldenrod (Laurence Fishburne), the owner of the trucking company; the third is driven by Tantoo (Amber Midthunder), a Native American driver whose brother is among the trapped miners. She’s accompanied by Varnay (Benjamin Walker), a mine insurance rep. It’s not spoiling anything to say that not everybody makes it.
To be fair, this is an inspired idea for a suspense film. If the incredibly heavy rigs travel too slow, the pounds per square inch on the tires will cause the ice to crack. But if the trucks travel too fast, they will create pressure waves which will also crack the ice. (An early montage showing each driver placing a bobblehead on his or her respective dashboard turns out to be more than just a fun bit of character detail: The bobbleheads tip them off to potential pressure waves.) And, needless to say, the trucks absolutely must not stop. That’s compelling stuff, which is presumably also why the History Channel once had a whole TV show about the real-life people who drove real-life trucks on real-life ice roads.
So long as it sticks to the actual ice road, The Ice Road is on pretty firm dramatic ground. As The Wages of Fear demonstrated, there’s an existential purity to such suspense: Even as we’re pulled into the stomach-turning tension of these drivers struggling to survive on this treacherous road, we feel like we’re experiencing an ineffable truth about the human condition. There are no real villains, just ordinary people struggling with their own flaws and with the ruthlessness of nature. At times in its first half, The Ice Road feels like it gravitates more toward The Grey in Liam Neeson’s late-career pantheon of dadsploitation cinema: It’s more about survival and loyalty than it is yet another movie about Neeson punching people out.
Unfortunately, it soon becomes yet another movie about Neeson punching people out. Hensleigh, who notably co-wrote the Michael Bay classics The Rock and Armageddon, has a fondness for tough-guy techspeak: You can feel him grinning behind the camera as he cuts to Air Force officers and mine-safety officials talking about the impossibility of airlifting 18-foot gas wellheads and 300 feet of pipe, or to desperate roughnecks calculating atmospheric volume among 26 sets of struggling lungs, or to truckers arguing over whether a bridge built in the 1960s and rated to 75,000 pounds is safe enough to drive their overloaded vehicles over. Meanwhile, Max Aruj’s rousing score thunders and roars, turning math into myth.
But Hensleigh also has a fondness for dopey action-flick bravado (remember he wrote Armageddon), and his script finally has less patience than his characters. A narrative thread about the cause for the methane explosion, involving sinister mine operators and their devious plan to cover up their misdeeds, eventually leads to tired, sub-Seagalian action gibberish in the second half. Ultimately, The Ice Road veers uneasily between immersive tension and a variety of you-have-got-to-be-kidding-me howlers on the level of both plot and dialogue.
Could it have worked? Is such a combination possible? Maybe it’s all fine for a late-June Netflix release. Besides, the Tony Scotts and Michael Bays of the world have on occasion ably crossed the streams of blue-collar authenticity and big-boom silliness. But it requires a surfeit of directorial style to help place such disparate elements in the same cinematic world: You have to sell not just dialogue and plot but an entire universe of attitudes and postures. Hensleigh, unfortunately, shoots it all straight. As The Ice Road goes on, that matter-of-fact approach increasingly feels at odds with what’s happening onscreen. Such a smart movie probably shouldn’t have been so stupid.
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