The “What year is it?” energy is intense this year as film after film claims or functions like they’re throwbacks. Off the top of one’s head, a great one is The Djinn, the claustrophobic horror film that would fit right in with other kid-centric genre titles. Middling is fitting for Those Who Wish Me Dead, where despite a star-studded assassination-during-wildfire plot, it has little fun and even less heart. The search for the worst, at this point in time, concludes with The Ice Road on Netflix.
But try your best not to fault the writer half of Jonathan Hensleigh—too much. He seems to be proving that his art is a form of time traveling, back to the era when films can simply be green-lit because they have the “big solutions for big issues” factor. Think Armageddon, which he co-wrote. In fact, The Ice Road is most eager to be that film’s companion as it’s also about rugged folks being the unfit-yet-only hope to stop a high-casualty disaster, switching out “deep-core drillers” with “big-rig drivers,” “drillers” with “wellheads,” “asteroid” with “cave-in,” and “space” with “Manitoba.” Everything is just one sci-fi event away from being called “Ice Armageddon,” or an over-the-top recruitment video for Kenworth trucks in colder regions.
Also included in the story is a leading man who’s world-weary yet could still carry the all-American traits your dads and theirs adore. Mike (Liam Neeson) may look like your typical trucker, but he flash-executes plans that will always work, loves his on-the-spectrum bro Gurty (Marcus Thomas), knows current events (opioid crisis), and stays sure-footed before any challenge. He is also wise enough to summarize what just happened or recite a section in the encyclopedia on ice road trucking. These should be enough to recognize him as “all-American,” even after the “Kiss my Irish ass!” remark, yeah?
Hensleigh’s writing half’s employment of a standard through-and-through hero suggests the presence of equally standard sidekicks—and regressive characterizations. Want to guess who’s the villain, who is in danger first, and who will realize there’s goodness in others after all, when we have Goldenrod (Laurence Fishburne), the tough-loving Black man, Tantoo the no-nonsense Cree (Amber Midthunder), and Varnay the cheery insurance man (Benjamin Walker)? Here’s a big hint: aside from the treacherous ice run, there’s also a corporate conspiracy unearthed by two miners (Holt McCallany and Martin Sensmeier) that makes little sense and is as thinly assembled as every other player in this show. It does allow “Big” things like a macho low-oxygen standoff and a trucks-versus-snowmobiles chase to happen, though. Well, this is the ‘90s, could be the ‘70s, so limitations are illusions, bro…
Thing is, even if The Ice Road is actually a film made in the ‘90s or ‘70s, the direction is appalling—enough to absolve the writing packed with retro-fun misfires and red flags. Again, as with The Punisher, the directing half of Hensleigh finds himself unable to visually translate the scripted words in engaging ways. Action scenes have a lot of stages before and during, but zero coups de grâce, resulting in a lot of “Oh, it has ended!” reactions. Non-action scenes follow the point-and-shoot rulebook so closely, they ought to be taught in film schools, lecture name “Try Not to Do This.” And from there it becomes noticeable how Trevor Rabin-esque crescendos from Max Aruj are working triple time to enliven them. Existential crisis happens when CGI gets involved, which if not poorly drawn then is poorly integrated, never cooperating with the lensing of Clint Eastwood’s collaborator Tom Stern. Seventeen years have passed since Frank Castle’s first rampage and 10 for Kill the Irishman, but if there’s been barely any improvement to the set skipper, it’s best to end his cryosleep, stat. And since he shares the same fleshy rig as the writer, wake him up as well.
It might not hurt to think making a film is like having both hands on the wheel, otherwise the risk of having an end result that’s only good to the viewer who has never watched anything before grows very, very real. Like this one.
The Ice Road will be available on Netflix starting June 25. You can watch the trailer here.