Review: Liam Neeson’s back, fighting on thin ice (literally)

It’s intriguing to imagine Liam Neeson’s management team, contemplating his next film. Perhaps “Uber Express”? Maybe “Lyfted Up”?

There’s just something symbiotic about Neeson and vehicles — not only cars, but planes (“Non-Stop”), suburban commuter trains (“The Commuter”), even snowplows (“Cold Pursuit”).

And now in “The Ice Road,” this durable action hero improbably pushing 70 is at the wheel of a big ol’ truck — not your normal truck, but a 65,000-pound rig. And not on regular roads, of course. On ice roads, meaning frozen lakes or oceans, where the spring thaw brings treacherous conditions and one wrong move sends you straight into the freezing abyss.

Luckily, Neeson has a way of lending his rough-hewn dignity to even the most perfunctory of plots — because this one, it must be said, is perfunctory. All you need to understand are three elements: Good guys, bad guys — no subtlety here — and the fact that ice is very slippery, very cold, and has a tendency to melt in sunshine. Got it?

In this latest installment of the Neeson vehicular canon, written and directed by Jonathan Hensleigh, Neeson is Mike McCann, a long-haul trucker who’s also the caretaker of his brother, Gurty, a war veteran suffering from PTSD. Mike can’t manage to hold onto a job very long — he’s had 11 jobs in eight years, and we watch him get fired from his latest after he decks a guy making fun of his brother’s war-induced aphasia. But his luck may be about to change.

A methane accident causes a diamond mine to explode up in remote Manitoba, Canada, killing eight miners and trapping 26. There’s a 30-hour oxygen window, but rescuers first need a wellhead. The only way to get the wellhead to the mine is by truck.

But this is April, when the ice roads leading to the mine are melting. No trucker would attempt such a suicidal mission.

Well, almost no trucker.

Mike responds to an alert from Jim Goldenrod, organizer of the impossible rescue, offering his driving skills (yes, Neeson still has a special set of skills) and brother Gurty (Marcus Thomas) as an ace mechanic. The duo is soon hired, joined on the mission by Goldrenrod himself (Laurence Fishburne, sadly underused here) and Tantoo (Amber Midthunder), a feisty young driver for whom the job is more personal than financial — her brother’s trapped in the mine.

There’s one more passenger in the three-rig convoy: an insurance guy from the company that runs the mine, apparently needed for his actuarial skills (Benjamin Walker, whose considerable acting talents aren’t really mined here, if you’ll excuse the pun).

In a film that’s big on great scenery but skimps on character development and backstory, we know from the outset who the good guys are — especially Mike and Gurty. We also know soon enough who the bad guys are; they’re cartoonish as can be. As for the ice, well, there’s lots, and it gets thinner and thinner — which one could say of the plot if one wanted to grab low-hanging fruit off the tree of potential puns.

More low-hanging fruit is offered in the lyrics of the Johnny Cash song on the country-infused soundtrack: “All I do is drive, drive, drive,” it goes (sung by Jason Isbell here). “Try to stay alive.” And while you might be thinking back to these lyrics as you watch Neeson’s Mike do just that — drive, drive, drive — you might also focus on the “alive” part.

That’s because Neeson’s durability as an action hero seems more remarkable as the years go on. Yes, he’s older and brittler and paler here, and there’s not even a hint of a love interest — unless you count Mike’s believable love for his brother, the only developed relationship in the script. But, just like Mike, he gets the job done, and he’s the reason to watch this.

“The Ice Road,” a Netflix release, has been rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America “for strong language and sequences of action and violence. “ Running time: 103 minutes. Two stars out of four.

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MPAA definition of PG-13: Parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.

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