How much plot is enough for a movie? It would be enough, maybe, just to follow three big rigs as they carry several super-heavy loads over treacherously not-so-frozen Canadian waterways, part of a desperate plan to rescue trapped miners whose oxygen is running out by the minute. That’s the premise The Ice Road starts out with: it’s kind of a springtime-in-Manitoba version of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1953 thriller The Wages of Fear, only featuring post-middle-aged block-knocker Liam Neeson instead of swarthy Italian-born hottie Yves Montand. As it turns out, The Ice Road is perhaps a little too twisty. Around the 50-minute mark a jackknife plot turn sends it careering off-road, and it becomes an overburdened movie rather than a nimble one. Still, this good-guys-outdriving-the-devil adventure—written and directed by Jonathan Hensleigh, an old-school veteran of action-movie scripts—has its blunt charms, and offers more than one instance of Neeson punching a guy in the face. And admit it: that’s part of what you came here for, isn’t it?
Neeson plays Mike, a veteran long-haul trucker who’s devoted to his younger brother, Gurty (Marcus Thomas), a mechanic and Iraq war veteran who suffers from aphasia. Gurty can understand what people say to him, but his sentences spool out in jumbles of seemingly disconnected words, a kind of private language Mike has become adept at decoding.
Gurty is an ace mechanic, but it’s difficult for him to hold down a job, which means he and Mike are always scrambling for money. So it’s no wonder Mike jumps at the chance to drive one of a three-truck fleet of big rigs carrying the roughly 25 tons of equipment needed to cap a methane pipeline in a Manitoba diamond mine. The mine has collapsed after an explosion, trapping a clutch of miners inside; the equipment will enable their rescue, but time is running out. What’s more, the trucks must be driven across “ice roads” spanning several frozen bodies of water, routes that are safe enough to navigate during the cold winter months but become treacherously melty by spring. An ice-road trucking expert named Goldenrod (Laurence Fishburne) will lead the mission. He bails one of the best drivers he knows, Tantoo (Amber Midthunder), out of jail to drive another of the three trucks. She’s an activist devoted to the causes of indigenous peoples, a young woman who takes guff from no one—plus, her brother is one of the men trapped in the mine, so she has reason to be edgier than usual. Her pique tips into overload when she learns she has to share her cab with an annoying and racist mining-company insurance guy, Varnay (Benjamin Walker), who, extra-annoyingly, has packed his squishy neck pillow and a supply of sandwiches for the ride.
Sign up for More to the Story, TIME’s weekly entertainment newsletter, to get the context you need for the pop culture you love.
Even after The Ice Road overcomplicates itself, there’s enough gas here to keep the thing going, including some nicely sustained bridge-crossing suspense and several fine demonstrations of stunt dangling. The early driving scenes are the best, particularly one involving some snazzy beneath-the-ice shots as these greatly overloaded vehicles trundle toward their destination: the cracks that splay beneath these shadowy behemoths serve as reminders that man and his supposedly clever inventions still need to respect nature and the laws of physics.
The Ice Road also happens to feature one animal actor, always a plus: Gurty has a beloved pet rat named Skeeter, who, sadly for us, spends most of his time in a little wooden box with a screen for a lid. But keep an eye on this rat, as even he will have his moment of heroism. And then there’s Neeson as Mike, alternately tough and tender as he deals with his sometimes aggravating brother. Mostly, he looks like he’s just about to blow his gasket in general. If the idea of Neeson scowling his way through an icy landscape feels familiar, that could be because he played a vengeful snowplow driver in 2019’s Cold Pursuit, a slushy remake of the crackling 2014 Norwegian action-thriller In Order of Disappearance—apparently, he’s now the snow-to guy. Even so, his soulful brand of pissed-off pugilism is welcome in The Ice Road. Careworn but wiry, Neeson gets the job done. He continues to shoulder the mixed blessing of becoming a late-in-life action hero, making it look like no work at all.