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The Ice Road Review: A Very Particular Set Of Wheels

Watching "The Ice Road" is a bit like staring at a building under construction. You have an idea of what it's trying to be, but the exposed drywall and scaffolding detract from any sense of mystery, not to mention cosmetic appeal. Could you live in it? Possibly. But any positives would be drowned out by its unaddressed shortcomings, and any novelty appeal would be fleeting.

On the surface, it sounds like a fun idea: Take Liam Neeson, the undisputed king of revenge action movies since 2008's "Taken," and squeeze him into a vehicle that taps into the sizable fanbase for "Ice Road Truckers," a History Channel series that delivered reliable ratings from 2007–2017. If the film is a hit for Netflix, who knows? Perhaps Neeson could set up an entire cottage industry of revenge films peripherally tied to "Pawn Stars," "Duck Dynasty," "Say Yes to the Dress" and "My 600-lb Life."

If he's going to do that, however, he'll have to find some better scripts. Take, for instance, literally the first spoken words in the entire film, between two guys in a mine:

Guy 1: "You wanna tell me why your methane sensors are off?"

Guy 2: "I don't know. Maybe the batteries are dead. Why don't you get us a canary?"

Guy 1: "This is no joke. These are to alert you to concentrations of methane. They must stay on."

Fifteen seconds later, a CG-constructed truck drives along a mountain road and is felled by a CG-fueled explosion, as Guy 1 yells "we hit a methane pocket!" You get the idea — subtle exposition and empathetic character development is buried deeper in this film than those guys in the Northern Manitoba-located mine where they are subsequently trapped.

Enter Neeson, whose 69-year-old Northern Irish visage stretches credibility as a butt-kicking, flannel-wearing, toothpick-chomping gearjammer who drives around blasting songs with on-the-nose lyrics like "All I do is drive, drive, drive." Much like the aforementioned miners, Neeson's down-on-his-luck big-rigger Mike has an amazing tendency to have life-altering moments occur immediately after verbalizing a dilemma, so when he says to his brother "It would be great if we owned our own rig ... [but] this thing costs 200 grand," four seconds later he gets a text message offering a job that could pay 200 grand.

We're on the road to nowhere

This is also where we're introduced to Mike's brother Gurty (Marcus Thomas), an amalgamation of outdated mental-disability stereotypes that feels like a role Ben Stiller's character in "Tropic Thunder" could have used as a follow-up to "Simple Jack." When the script needs Gurty to be proof that Mike stands up for his brother, he gets picked on by truckers who won't give his Thermos back; when it needs him to be helpful, Gurty beats up a pair of assailants with his bare hands. When Gurty is intended to display helplessness, he struggles through a psych evaluation with questions like "How long to go with them?"; for extremely long periods of the film, he doesn't say anything. Gurty also has a pet mouse, of course, because ... well, "Of Mice and Men." We're told he's a veteran suffering from aphasia, but it's perhaps wise to assume "Ice Road" isn't the most thoroughly researched portrayal of the affliction.

At this point, you probably think "Ice Road" is a clunker. But somehow, despite all these lazy screenwriting elements (and many more) that feel like they were intended to be patched up in a later draft, the film frequently works. A big part of this is Amber Midthunder ("Legion"), who plays a trucker with Native American blood in her veins and a serious chip on her shoulder. A supporting role from the always solid Laurence Fishburne (as a veteran fleet owner named Goldenrod — likely in tribute to the color of the script's only draft) is also enjoyable, and of course there's an undeniable charm in Neeson's indefatigable "I have a very particular set of skills" schtick.

Mixing that formula with the ice road trucker phenomenon — depicting drivers who risk their lives to drive trucks over frozen lakes in Canada's Northwest territories — brings it a refreshing twist, even if Neeson spends far more time sitting on his butt than kicking someone else's. The film also has a character named Varnay (Benjamin Walker) who comes along for the ride, providing two additional transparent screenwriting needs — serving as the "outsider" these veteran truckers need to explain every move to (like why they all drive with bobbleheads on the dashboard), and as catalyst for some effectively engineered story twists.

Wait ... did I just pass a Waffle House?

Of course, there are lots of nail-biting scenes with cracking ice, overturning big rigs and slowly suffocating miners (Goldenrod's gang have 30 hours to drive three trucks hauling 25-ton wellheads across a frozen lake in April), and by the end Neeson is taking on masked assassins and attempting to outrun avalanches. It's goofy fun, junk food for genre fans.

So, perhaps it's best to not get hung up on the fact that the entire movie feels like an infomercial for Kenworth trucks — a close-up on a brochure assures us they are "The World's Best," they are the only trucks that can save those poor miners, and they are mentioned so frequently that the vehicles should be listed as a co-star on IMDb. Perhaps it's best to sit back and enjoy the two — count 'em, two — scenes where Neeson gives some jerk his comeuppance with a brutally forecasted single punch to the face (remember 33 years ago in "Die Hard," when that felt fresh and cathartic?). Perhaps it's best to appreciate that Colm McCallany (so great on "Mindhunter") got to cash a paycheck, rather than focus on his wasted appearance here as one of the imperiled miners.

Writer/director Jonathan Hensleigh, who once seemed positioned as Michael Bay's heir apparent after writing "Die Hard with a Vengeance" and "Armageddon" and making his directorial debut with Thomas Jane's "The Punisher," seems to have instead settled into a straight-to-video rhythm with only occasional attempts to transcend expectations. The Neeson-as-an-action-star thing similarly only tries so hard, as scenes with Gurty are reminders that the more one tries to give these characters depth, the more it feels like McDonald's attempts to add salads to their menu.

Of course, the 30-hour ticking clock device is silly, because it's impossible to measure how much air is in the collapsed cave and almost certainly some percentage of the trapped miners would likely perish. A scene with a character who falls beneath the ice is laughably preposterous. Cracked ice spreads like wildfire, only to stop mere inches from where our heroes are standing. There are plot holes big enough to drive ... well, a Kenworth truck (the world's best!) through. But at the end of it all, scaffolding and exposed drywall be damned, "The Ice Road" is a building that somehow stands up.