Call it “The Fast and the Precarious.”
Liam Neeson just turned 69 but he’s still taking on brutally punishing roles that would challenge actors half his age — and this time around he’s facing a myriad of obstacles, from bad guys to financial strain to the elements, in “The Ice Road,” a Netflix movie that plays like an extended revival episode of “Ice Road Truckers” crossed with William Friedkin’s classic 1977 trucker thriller “Sorcerer” (which itself was a remake of 1953’s “Wages of Fear.”)
The dialogue is hokey and the action careens to the very edge of implausibility, but writer-director Jonathan Hensleigh (“The Punisher”) has a keen sense of pacing, the practical effects and CGI-laden stuntwork are first-rate and, come on, we’ve got Liam Neeson smacking a guy in the chest with a Thermos and saying things like, “Kiss my Irish ass!”
Neeson plays Mike McCann, a financially strapped veteran trucker based in North Dakota who takes on dangerous long-haul work where he can get it — but he’s been fired from one job after another in recent years, due to the fact his mechanic brother and traveling companion Gurty (Marcus Thomas) is a war veteran with PTSD who has a condition called aphasia, which jumbles up his words and makes it nearly impossible for him to communicate with anyone other than Mike.
After losing yet another gig, Mike is just about out of options when he gets a job offer from a man named Goldenrod (Laurence Fishburne), who is putting together an emergency crew to embark on a dangerous rescue mission to a mine in Winnipeg. There’s been a methane gas explosion, killing eight miners and leaving 26 unaccounted for, and Goldenrod needs drivers for three trucks that will haul the enormous 18-foot wellheads and some 300 feet of pipe necessary to drill and cap the wells and save the miners before their oxygen supply runs out.
Complicating matters: It’s April, five weeks after the traditional season for ice road trucking, and the path to the mine is beginning to thin and might well crack under the spring sun. As one driver puts it, “You go too fast, you create a pressure wave, and in [the ice] you go. Too slow and the ice can’t handle the pounds per square inch on your tire — in you go.” This is why each driver will be paid $50,000 — if they successfully carry out the mission. Meanwhile, there’s a separate drama taking place within the collapsed mine, as a veteran miner named Rene (Holt McCallany from “Mindhunter”) begins to suspect the explosion was due to deliberate neglect from the obligatory greedy corporate owners.
It’s a three-truck mission. Goldenrod (what a name!) takes the wheel behind one truck, with Mike and Gurty in rig No. 2. A young driver named Tantoo (Amber Midthunder) will take the wheel of the third truck, with company insurance claims adjuster Varnay (Benjamin Walker) along for the ride for reasons that become as slippery as the road ahead. (Goldenrod has to assemble this makeshift team because all of his regular drivers have scattered to warm locales on vacation.)
Canada has stood in for any number of American locales over the years, but this time around, Manitoba is, well, Manitoba, and the vistas are breathtakingly beautiful. The rescue team runs into virtually every obstacle imaginable — some created by nature, others man-made. We get a number of scenes where the ice buckles, or cracks, and Mike et al. have to resort to MacGyver-esque improvisation in order to stay out of the water. (Spoiler alert: Not everybody stays dry.)
Neeson is his reliable self; even though Mike is a crusty old bird, we don’t doubt he can still handle a rig and throw a punch and pull someone out of the icy waters. The supporting cast is excellent, with Amber Midthunder particularly terrific as Tantoo, who will do anything to carry out the mission because one of those trapped miners is her brother. “The Ice Road” is what we used to call a B-movie, but there’s no shame in a B-movie that carries out its mission with such competence and star power.