Writer and Director: Jonathan Hensleigh
Jonathan Hensleigh’s The Ice Road is an action thriller set in the freezing wastes of Manitoba. A methane explosion at Katka diamond mine traps miners underground with rapidly depleting supplies of oxygen. Their survival depends on a wellhead to seal off escaping gas. Wellheads are exceptionally heavy pieces of machinery and the only available ones are 300 miles away. Three are commandeered, but who will drive the vast trucks needed to haul them now it’s nearly spring and the ice roads over which they must travel are increasingly dangerous?
Liam Neeson plays Mike McCann, a driver whose PTSD-afflicted brother Gurty (Marcus Thomas) has erratic behaviour which has lost them jobs. Gurty is devoted to his pet rat. So far, so Steinbeck. But Gurty turns out to be an ace mechanic which convinces Jim Goldenrod (Laurence Fishburne) to follow his instinct and hire both brothers for this suicidal mission.
Goldenrod takes a further punt on another maverick rig driver, a young Cree woman, Tantoo (Amber Midthunder). Three trucks set off into the bleak landscape with only 30 hours to reach their destination. Although the ominous music suggests time is ticking away fast – regularly cutting between rig drivers and miners coughing feebly in the darkness – there is space for a whole series of adventures on the road. Katka bosses have insisted that their risk-assessing actuary, Tom Varnay (Benjamin Walker) accompanies them. At first his role is naïve city-slicker, his unfortunate head-gear – a flat-cap and ear-flap combo – signalling his all-round uselessness.
The first part of the road trip works because of Tom Stern’s first-rate cinematography. There are stunning aerial shots of the ice road and clever footage seemingly filmed under the ice of the undersides of the trucks. Tension is maintained by the constant threat of the ice cracking or forming a sort of ice wave, either of which will plunge the trucks into freezing water – indeed there is at least one thrilling glimpse of this happening.
From here on, cinematography gives way to full-blown action movie tropes. Tom Varnay is soon revealed as a criminal mastermind, bent on sabotaging the mission. He has had the foresight to pack a cooler, more villainous hat so we have no trouble spotting he’s a psychopath. Time may be pressing, but it is lenient towards our intrepid heroes, who have to fix tow ropes, pull rigs and even bodies out of the ice, fight Varnay and kill off his crack team of sinister men in snowmobiles. Varnay is both destructive and personally indestructible. He carries dynamite and sets off an avalanche, he leaps out of moving trucks, recovers from a fatal car crash and has several brutal fist fights with Mike, esaping with only a tiny graze. You really feel he is wasted as actuary-cum-spy for the diamond mine company – there can’t be that many opportunities at Katka for his unique skillset.
Our good guys all get a chance at showing their heroism, Leeson all gritty integrity, Thomas stoically self-sacrificing and Midthunder both noble and courageous. Even Skeeter the rat gets his moment in the sun.
It’s all hokum, of course, but well-filmed hokum.
Signature Entertainment presents The Ice Road on Digital Platforms 27th December and Blu-ray & DVD 10th January.