Although the premise is a riff on Clouzot’s masterpiece, which was based upon a Georges Arnaud novel, it does feel at first like a riff. Dozens of people are trapped inside a methane explosion in a Canadian diamond mine. A 30-ton gas head is required to drill the methane pockets and release the men. However, such a thing can't be flown to remote areas. Large planes and helicopters cannot land there. Trucks are the only way to get there. The only way trucks can do this is to use the so-called "ice roads". These roads were created on frozen northern lakes. They are only used during winter months when the snow is sufficiently thick. The roads are closed to regular drivers as it is now April.
Our heroes will still take them. Three trucks are equipped with three wellheads to provide insurance in the event that one or more of them fail to make it. Mike McCann (Neeson), his brother Gurty (Marcus Thomas), an Iraq veteran who is an expert mechanic, but also has a mental impairment owing to his wartime experiences. Another truck is driven Jim Goldenrod (Laurence Fishburne), owner of the trucking business. Tantoo (Amber Midthunder), Native American driver, whose brother is one of the trapped miners. Varnay (Benjamin Walker), an insurance representative for mines, is accompanying her.
This is a great idea for suspense films. The ice will crack if the extremely heavy trucks travel too slowly. However, trucks that travel at high speeds will cause pressure waves to crack the ice. A montage that shows each driver placing a bobblehead onto his or her dashboard is an early example of a humorous detail. The bobbleheads alert them to possible pressure waves. The trucks must never stop, it is obvious. This is quite compelling and may be why History Channel used to have a TV series about real-life truck drivers on real-life ice roads.
The Ice Road has a lot of drama as long as it stays on the actual ice road. The Wages Of Fear has shown that there is an existential purity to suspense like this: As we are pulled into the tension of these drivers trying to survive on this treacherous road we feel as if we are experiencing an ineffable truth regarding the human condition. There are no villains. Just ordinary people dealing with their flaws and the brutality of nature. The Ice Road sometimes feels more like The Grey from Liam Neeson’s late-career cinematography of dadsploitation cinema. It is more about survival and loyalty rather than Neeson punching people out.
It soon becomes another film about Neeson punching people. Hensleigh, who co-wrote Michael Bay's classics The Rock and Armageddon among others, is fond of tough-guy techspeak. You can see him smiling behind the camera as he talks to Air Force officers and mine safety officials about the impossible task of airlifting 18-foot gas-wellheads and 300-foot of pipe. Or to roughnecks trying to calculate atmospheric volume between 26 sets of struggling lungs. Truckers are arguing whether a bridge constructed in the 1960s and rated at 75,000 pounds is safe to be driven overloaded trucks. Max Aruj's energetic score thunders and roars, making math seem like myth.
Hensleigh has a love for action-flick bravado (remember, he wrote Armageddon), so his script has less patience than his characters. The story of the methane explosion is told through a narrative that involves sinister miners and their devious plan for covering up their mistakes. This leads to stale, sub-Seagalian action gibberish during the second half. The Ice Road oscillates between intense tension and a variety you-have-got to-be-kidding me howlers depending on both plot and dialogue.
It could have worked. Could such a combination be possible? It might be fine for a Netflix release in June. The Tony Scotts and Michael Bays have, at times, successfully crossed the lines between big-boom silliness and blue-collar authenticity. To place these disparate elements within the same cinematic universe, it takes a lot of directorship style. You need to sell more than just plot and dialogue. You also need to sell a whole range of attitudes and postures. Hensleigh is a terrible director. As The Ice Road progresses, this matter-of-fact approach becomes increasingly incompatible with what's actually happening onscreen. This smart movie shouldn't be so stupid.