Sunday, July 14, 2024

‘The Ice Road’ Makes a Good Run

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The Ice Road is a low-budget hardscrabble modern-day entry into the all but forgotten genre of trucksploitation. A genre where the action often involves big rigs and the drivers who are often working-class fringes of society. It’s a somewhat perfect fit for someone like Liam Neeson, who has spent the latter half of his career making movies about nihilistic older men as bloodthirsty vigilantes who happen to have to have specific skills.

Jonathan Hensleigh, who also wrote the film, has made a scrappy little film. It’s a bare-bones film that doesn’t muck around with character development and gets to the meat of the action as soon as possible. Hensleigh wrote Die Hard with a Vengeance, JumanjiArmageddon, and made his directorial debut with The Punisher, which makes him eerily suited for The Ice Road.

Granted, landing Neeson and Laurence Fishburne is a stroke of luck. The two actors are immensely talented and have a happy talent for taking a role with not much meat and gnawing at the bone.

The film, at its core, is pretty simple. There’s been a methane explosion at the Katka mines in Manitoba, causing a cave-in. The miners are trapped, and the company needs to transport a wellhead to release the pocket of methane so they can blow the miners out without killing them. The problem is that it’s the offseason and all the truckers who would typically handle this type of job are out of the country.

So the company turns to Jim Goldenrod (Fishburne) for help. Jim sends out a beacon for truckers with a particular set of skills. As luck would have it, Neeson’s Mike McCann has just been fired from his current trucking job for standing up for his brother/co-worker Gurty (Marcus Thomas), who has aphasia. 

Gurty and Mike aren’t the only ones who answer the call, however. The other member of the team is Tantoo (Amber Midthunder), who Jim has to bail out of jail for throwing rocks at police cars in protest of building a parking garage on her people’s land. While she’s leaving, the desk sergeant tells Tantoo that if she does this again, they will arrest her again.

Tantoo tells him, “We’re going to keep doing it until you get off our land.” When the cop replies that the city owns that parking garage Tantoo shoots back, “I was referring to North America.” It’s darkly comical that in 2021 almost every genre acknowledges the justified anger and deeply held suspicion of the Indigenous people on this continent-except the American western. 

Hensleigh cuts back and forth from Jim assembling his team and the miners trapped in the mine. The miners are hurt and running out of oxygen. The safety inspector, Rene Lampard (Holt McCallany), is also trapped with them. He can’t shake the feeling that something isn’t right. After all, the explosion happened mere seconds after he noticed the methane detector sensors were cut. 

One of the miners, Cody (Martin Sensmeier), a de facto spokesperson, is also revealed to be Tantoo’s brother. Cody and Rene work together to try and figure out how to conserve air while communicating with the people topside by tapping out morse code on the pipes. Despite McCallany’s and Sensmeier’s abilities, whenever the film cuts to them, it always feels as if we lose a little bit of tension. 

But once Mike, Gurty, Tantoo, and Jim get on the road, each carrying a wellhead in case anything happens to the other, The Ice Road is an effective nail-biter. Partially because Hensleigh does a good job getting across that the ice roads are dangerous at the best of times, but it is even more treacherous with warmer weather in early April.

Before they leave, Jim tells them one more person is going with them, Varnay (Benjamin Walker). Varnay is from Katka Industries, the actuary department. Up until this point, I was having trouble believing that a mining corporation would go through so much trouble to save a handful of miners. But once Varnay was introduced, I understood.

You’d have to live under a rock not to have your spidey senses tingling whenever anyone from the company wants to tag along on a death-defying trek over treacherous terrain just “to observe.” Sure enough, soon trucks are stalling, sabotage is suspected, and before they’ve even crossed the first leg of the journey, they find each other pointing accusatory fingers at one another.

Hensleigh is working on a minuscule budget, and at times it shows. The explosion at the beginning of the film resembled something we would see on television in the early 2000s. Yet, the ice road stuff is riveting. Hensleigh and his director of photography Tom Stern, give us big wide shots, so we understand the desolation and isolation involved in this daring trek.

Stern’s camera gives us the claustrophobic feeling inside the cabs by always being right beside the actors or just above or below to give us the sense of how little space the truckers have inside the cabs. The filmmakers even take us underneath the ice to show us the trucks from underneath to hammer home just how thin the ice is and ratchet up the tension. These shots work effectively well once the ice starts to crack.

The Ice Road is not a polished film but is a scrappy one. Stern and Hensleigh do their best to give you as much information as possible without stopping for info dumps, if only because they don’t have time for that kind of shot set-up. It may not look pretty, but damn if the movie isn’t a bare-bones tension-filled action movie.

The film only really starts to go off the rails towards the end. The last twenty minutes or so where Hensleigh’s script, which has up to this point been following the tried and true narrative structure of “one damn thing after another,” begins to go one damn thing too far. Varnay isn’t just a bad guy; he’s an archvillain.

Both Varnay and Mike, out of nowhere, seem to travel vast distances in a blink of an eye. It reminded me a bit of how killers in the early slasher films seemed to transport from one place to another magically. At one point, Neeson’s Mike gets from one side of the ravine to another, with the only bridge across collapsed, in under five minutes. Honestly, I would have forgiven that, but Hensleigh, who has thus far grounded much of The Ice Road in some semblance of reality, makes Varnay neigh on indestructible.

Varnay drives off the side of a mountain, gets thrown off a speeding truck onto an ice road, spends some ten minutes wrestling, bare-knuckle boxing with Neeson, and trying to hijack a runaway big rig cab. It’s too much, and Hensleigh doesn’t quite know how to stage it all to make any of it thrilling. Instead, it feels like padding, an extra hurdle for our heroes to overcome, to make the film hit some arbitrary runtime.

Liam Neeson can play roles like Mike McCann in his sleep. It’s a testament to Neeson that he doesn’t. The relationship between Mike and Gurty is not fleshed out all that well, but both Neeson and Thomas do the best they can. Usually, Neeson plays loners or estranged husbands, so it was refreshing to see him play protective big brother.

Hensliegh also went out of his way to cast actual Indigenous actors to play Indigenous characters. He even allows them to be prickly. Aside from Tantoo’s remark at the police station, there is a scene where we see each trucker put their own bobblehead on the dashboard. Jim and Mike have some variation of hula girls, but Tantoo has a bobblehead of Colonel Custard with an arrow through his head.

At the midway point, Hensleigh even goes so far as to show that the camaraderie between truckers doesn’t always cross the color line. Varnay quickly plants the idea into Mike’s head that Tantoo is the one sabotaging the trucks, and he eagerly takes the bait. But Hensleigh goes one step further and has Mike apologize to her after discovering the truth, and the two race against Varnay to save the miners and stop him from destroying the wellheads.

By no means is The Ice Road a masterpiece, but it is effective, and Hensleigh has a natural talent for making the most out of very little. It’s the type of film that you have to admire simply because you know how hard it was to make. But it’s also a film you kind of love because not only do you understand how hard it was to make, but you also have a good time while admiring it. 

Image courtesy of Netflix

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