By: Anthony Francis
Liam Neeson has always been a gifted actor and a strong screen presence. He is an actor who can captivate an audience and bleeds that rugged and exciting yet tender persona of actors such as William Holden and Burt Lancaster.
In the beginning of his career, Neeson carved out many memorable supporting roles, as filmmakers knew how to use him. In period films such as “Excalibur”, “The Bounty”, and “The Mission”, Neeson’s towering height, broad frame and thunderous voice helped him stand out amongst casts that included Nicol Williamson, Anthony Hopkins, Mel Gibson, Jeremy Irons, and Robert De Niro.
Neeson is indeed an actor who would have been at home in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s; the time when Hollywood produced big films starring bigger actors. Perhaps he could have been an Irish Errol Flynn by way of Robert Mitchum.
Liam Neeson certainly carved out a great career for himself and with his starring (and Oscar Nominated) role in Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece “Schindler’s List”, the actor found opportunities to grow and do deeper and more serious work but still make way for big films with some high adventure. For my money, the finest use of Neeson’sversatility was in Michael Canton-Jones’ 1995 “Rob Roy” where he played a 1700s Scottish nobleman who becomes an outlaw. Everything that makes Neeson such a great actor and star is on full display in that film.
Yet he is always an actor who challenges himself and it is always exciting when thespians test their skills in many different roles and genres.
In 2008, Liam Neeson followed in the footsteps of Nicolas Cage and Denzel Washington when he took the lead role in “Taken”, a pure modern Action film complete with slim plot and tough talking one liners, of which the catch phrase “I have a particular set of skills” was born.
The film made him a box office draw and it seems that, since that film’s success, Neeson has almost stopped challenging himself and only rarely does he take any cinematic chances (Martin Scorsese’s “Silence” and The Coen Brothers’ “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”).
Regarding his new life as a bankable Action star, Liam Neeson has been stuck in subpar Hollywood Action films for over a decade. Sometimes he hits a good one (the excellent “Cold Pursuit”) but most times he is stuck in droll and pedestrian Action films (all Neeson’s post “Taken” Action films save for “Cold Pursuit”).
Now comes “The Ice Road”. Sadly, the film fails immediately and never recovers. The problems within this film are legion.
The screenplay is the film’s biggest deficit, beginning with Neeson’s character. He is the hero, but his role is so underwritten and uninteresting that that the actor’s performance and presence become absolutely dull.
To be fair, with the exception of his screenplay for John McTiernan’s “Die Hard with a Vengeance”, I have never been the biggest fan of the Jonathan Hensleigh. I feel his work in front of and behind the camera is lazy.
His 2004 version of “The Punisher” was passable but Lexi Alexander made a much better version of the character in the sequel, “Punisher: War Zone”, which was the Punisher film the first one should have been.
Liam Neeson is Mike, a stoic truck driver with a badassdisposition. His brother Gurty (Marcus Thomas) is a veteran who can no longer speak due to brain damage. In a film snowed in by a blizzard of cliches, of course Gurty is a savant of sorts and is a super-talented mechanic, but he makes the other workers feel uncomfortable, ergo he and his brother find it hard to get solid work.
Hensleigh sets up something deeper between the two brothers and then ignores it. In this screenplay, Mike’s brother’s mental issues are used to help endear Neeson to the audience and nothing more.
Will the unemployable Mike ever get back on the ice? The collapse of a Manitoba mine that traps 20-plus workers who are running out of air, assures us he will!
The trip is extremely dangerous, as it is now Spring, and the roads are more dangerous.
A couple of their fellow drivers (the always watchable Laurence Fishburne and Amber Midthunder) join them on their dangerous quest.
The excitement should be watching these big rigs drive the life-threatening terrains. The film promises a visceral thrill with stuntmen doing jaw-dropping truck stunts.
Sadly, director Hensleigh is more interested in peppering everything with CGI. There are real trucks and some exciting (or almost so) stunts, but the CGI overtakes the film much too soon and it is badly done CGI at that. Almost every single action sequence is completely underwhelming.
The film itself is silly and not in a fun way. All the side characters are cast to where there is no surprise regarding who the true bad guys are and how they will be portrayed. The fact that once the trucks get going, Hensleigh throws it all away for bad “grade Z” plot points that cause the film to become ludicrous. And there is an unnecessary sidebar where the miners begin infighting as their oxygen starts to run out that has no reason or place in the scheme of things.
With no surprises, a bored looking leading man, and an avalanche of cliches, “The Ice Road” (Neeson’s worst film in years) commits that most horrible of sins for any film; it is plain dumb.